LEARNING AND LUNCHING ON MANHATTAN’S LOWER EAST SIDE

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Although many New Yorkers live in one of the four boroughs of New York City called Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island, it’s usually the fifth (or first) borough — Manhattan — that most people think of in connection with all the investment banking, legal and corporate shenanigans, theater, opera, music and other entertainments that originate in New York. Manhattan is also the part of New York where many movie stars live when they aren’t making movies, unless they live in Montana because they love ranching, or London because they love British rock stars, or tax havens because they love hanging on to as much of their oodles of money as they can. (Residents of New York City are triple-taxed — by the federal government, by the state, and by the city.)

However, that’s neither here nor there, so let’s move on — but not before noting it’s out-of-sight expensive to rent or buy an apartment at market rates in Manhattan these days, and that all those folks making the big bucks in finance, law, corporate shenanigans, and entertainment may have something to do with it.  Deep-pocket demand outpacing supply, and like that.

There isn’t much supply left in Manhattan because it’s a sardine-shaped island positioned between the East River and the Hudson River, with its tail pointing into the Atlantic Ocean (and toward the Statue of Liberty) and its nose up in Washington Heights and Fort Tryon Park, pushing into Riverdale.  The very first settlers, down at the tail, were of course the Dutch, who upon landing bought it from the resident Indians for $24 in flashy trinkets and named it Nieuw Amsterdam — or so the story goes that all New Yorkers learn in kindergarten or first grade. But the Dutch pretty soon got taken over by the English, who renamed their new property New York and began to build.

Flash forward to now.  The reason demand for housing outpaces supply is that there’s no land left to build on, it’s getting harder and harder to build up higher and higher, and it costs more and more to do it. So.  Back in the mid-19th century, however, there still was land, and the wealthy built north — up Fifth Avenue towards Central Park, leaving what was south of them for the hungry and desperate immigrants sailing across the ocean to find a better life for themselves. These people, first from Ireland and Germany but soon from Eastern Europe, began piling up in what we now refer to as “the lower East Side.”  When you look at a map, that’s near the tail end of the sardine, on the right.

Initially, the houses there were one-room affairs built side by side. Unfortunately, this mode of construction soon became inadequate for the needs of the immigrant population, and responsive real estate investors then developed the idea of the apartment house — five-story multi-family buildings with footprints not much larger than those of the one-room houses they were replacing. These new five-story buildings were called “tenements,” and when built in the mid-1860’s were thought a great improvement over jamming ten or more people into a one-room structure.

But the multi-family buildings continued in use until 1935, by which time they were considered places to move out of as soon as one could. In any event, in that year municipal fire regulations banning the use of wooden staircases put an end to their occupation as dwellings.  However, they were not destroyed because the shops on the ground floors — which didn’t rely on the staircases for access — could stay open, thereby paying for maintenance of the buildings.

Accordingly, most of them still survive, now modernized and brought up to code inside, although from the street they look much as they must have looked around 1900. Today, the Lower East Side is a place to enjoy pricey shopping and eating in historic buildings.  In addition, one of the original tenement buildings — 97 Orchard Street — is now the Tenement Museum.

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[The legend, which isn’t very clear in the photograph, reads: “This 1863 tenement was home to 7,000 immigrants. They faced challenges we face today — making new lives, raising families, working for better futures. Today it houses the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which presents the history of immigration. through the personal stories of generations of newcomers who built this country.”]

Visiting the Tenement Museum is an interesting experience, not only for out-of-towners who wish to learn something of the economic and social history of the city, but also for children born and raised in comfort and privilege, or relative privilege, who may have no idea what kinds of hardship their grandparents and great-grandparents endured in order to provide the next generation a somewhat better life than they had had.

And so when a few weeks ago I was invited to accompany two young children and their father on a trip to the Tenement Museum during one of the last fine Sundays before the arrival of cold weather, I was glad to accept.

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Unfortunately, one is not allowed to take photographs inside the museum. But there is a gift shop with many books of pictures, memorabilia and other trinkets for sale. Here are some of the books:

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If you’re nowhere near New York and therefore unlikely to visit the museum, all of these books may be purchased online at: shop.tenement.org

There are also less instructional souvenirs, probably not worth the money — but little people do have big eyes. And it all does go to support the museum:

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The museum offers eight hour-long tours, each focused on a different aspect of immigrant life in New York.  One of the daytime tours is designed for children; that was therefore the one we attended the morning we went.  It was about family living conditions at 97 Orchard Street.

First we met with an attractive young woman who said her name was Ellen.  She spoke with the children on the tour as if she were a third- or fourth-grade teacher. (She had a blackboard, and asked the children to imagine this and that, and said “Good!” a lot.)  Ellen explained the house we were in had been built in 1863-64, and had five floors, four apartments on each floor, and three rooms in each apartment. At some point in the 1920s, two toilets were installed on each floor, and pipes brought cold running water to each kitchen sink. But before then there had been no running water in the house.  The only water pump was in the back yard behind the house, so all water had to be hauled upstairs in pails. The pump was next to four wooden latrines with doors.  We were able to see all that as we exited, after the tour.

[Although the children didn’t  hear this in the morning presentation, another tour leader in the afternoon told us that the proximity of the latrines to the well water resulted in frequent deaths at 97 Orchard Street from infant diarrhea. This second tour leader also took us up one flight of stairs, now lit but originally entirely dark and then lit by a single gaslight on the wall. The stairs were no wider than two feet from wooden banister to wall. Think of that when you learn, in the next paragraph, how many people used them to go up and down in the dark, or near-dark, several times a day.)

After writing 5-4-3-2-1 on the blackboard (for number of floors, apartments per floor, rooms per apartment, and toilets per floor in one building), Ellen asked the children how many families lived in the building. Those who knew how to multiply five times four called out the answer: Twenty!   One of the adults accompanying the children on our tour then asked the average size of the families.  Ellen told us that when the house was built, there were about six or seven people in each family, but later there could be as many as ten children, meaning twelve people per apartment.  That meant there must have been between 120 and 240 people using the very narrow dark stairs every day — to go work or school, or to use the latrines, or to bring water, coal and food up by hand.

Ellen then asked the children to imagine that they and their parents had lived in Italy on a farm, but their parents had decided to come to America because they heard  life could be better here. They could bring only one suitcase with them. What would they put in it? Would it be hard to leave everything else behind? And how would they feel in a big city, when all they had known was farm life?

After those discussions, we went to visit one of the ground floor apartments, furnished as it probably was in 1916. There we were greeted by “Victoria” — played with brio by an actress in period costume impersonating a fourteen-year-old Jewish immigrant girl from Greece. “Victoria” had been living in this apartment for three years with her family. They had arrived in 1913. She had nine brothers, but she was the only girl.  However, her mother had a big belly again, so perhaps there might be another girl.  Victoria was very chatty (in her strong persuasive accent), but only in response to our questions as Italian immigrants just off the boat and wanting to know something about life in America.

“Victoria” explained how ten children and two parents could sleep in three tiny rooms when there was only one double bed in one of the rooms. (The parents and the very youngest ones slept there, in the bed and on the floor.) The older brothers slept on the floor in the other room, wrapped up in rug-like pieces of cloth with a thick nap on one side. She — the only girl — slept in a similar rug-like wrap, but apart from her brothers, on the small kitchen floor.

“Victoria” also told us that children in America had to go to school  till they were fourteen (this was 1916), but when she had arrived three years before they had put her in kindergarten because she didn’t know English. When she became fourteen she had only reached second grade.  But her father said that was enough school and now she had to work. So she helped him make aprons three days a week, and helped her mother three days a week with all the work her mother had to do to wash and clean and cook for a family of twelve. However, one day a week was for herself. On that day, for a penny, she could see a moving picture with her girlfriend. She explained that it was a series of pictures that moved and told a story, but without words, so you didn’t have to understand the language. There was music, instead. And for another penny, she could buy an ice-cream. And for a nickel, if she saved up for it, she could once in a while ride far away to a beautiful place in the north called Central Park that was like being in the country.

Someone asked “Victoria” how much rent her family paid for their nice apartment. She said it was on the ground floor, so it cost more than the ones upstairs because it wasn’t as hot in summer and they didn’t have to bring everything up and down the stairs. That’s why it was twenty dollars a month.  The ones on the top floor were only ten dollars. She also tried to impress on us how expensive it was to light the gas lamp in the kitchen: it cost 25 cents to turn on the gas meter.

We never did get around to asking about baths, or how to earn money — other than by selling from pushcarts, which was how many newcomers began. But our visit with “Victoria” was enough to give the children on the tour a vivid idea of how different her life was from theirs.  She did add at the end, though, that her father was hopeful they could move north to Harlem soon, where there were more Jewish people who spoke Ladino, which was their language in Greece.  Most of the immigrants at 97 Orchard Street spoke Yiddish.

After we thanked “Victoria,” said goodbye and left, Ellen offered us an astonishing additional piece of history.  The real Victoria — on whom “Victoria” was modeled — did soon thereafter move to Harlem with her large family, and then later to Long Island, where she married and had two children of her own, a boy and a girl.  The boy eventually became an astro-physicist who worked for NASA.

Lunch was an entirely different experience. We walked to Katz’s Delicatessen — established 1888 and verifiably kosher — at the intersection of Houston and Ludlow Streets, about four blocks away.  There, as the menus printed on the paper placemats proclaimed, one could find sandwiches, on rye or “club” bread, of hot corned beef, hot pastrami, hot brisket of beef, roast beef, tongue, turkey, salami, bologna, liverwurst, chopped liver, garlic “knobel” wurst, or any combination thereof — as well as platters of any of these things — all with dill pickles and pickled tomatoes on the side.  Also available were five kinds of hot knishes, potato kugel, noodle kugel, chicken noodle or matzo ball or split pea soup.  Still looking? You could have a plate of lox, eggs and onions.  Side dishes of steak fries, home made potato salad, coleslaw, macaroni salad and baked beans.  Hot dogs and hamburgers for the kids.  Seconds for anyone who had room for more.

Thirsty? No problem! Choose from Dr. Brown’s soda, celery tonic, cream soda (or diet cream soda) draught pitcher beer, Katz’s own seltzer, a New York egg cream, or one of the usual fizzy things — orange soda, root beer, cherry or grape soda, Pepsi (or diet Pepsi), 7-Up (or diet 7-Up).

Then — if you’re a bottomless pit — you could also order dessert:  “New York cheesecake,” carrot cake, sponge cake, chocolate cake, one of the assorted fruit pies, or a “seasonal” cake.

[I’ve left out the “tossed green salad” (which I bet no one orders) and the assorted juices, hot or iced tea and coffee. Don’t hold it against me.]

But don’t think it’s a snap to order any of this.  Remember the movie, “When Harry Met Sally?”  Remember the scene where Sally fakes an orgasm over a sandwich and a lady at the next table (actually the director Rob Reiner’s mother) tells the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having?”  Remember that?  That was filmed at Katz’s.

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Maybe because of the movie, maybe because the servings at Katz’s are huge, maybe because Katz’s is the last of its kind — you have to FIGHT for a table:

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We got lucky.  As I pushed my way towards one of the few places against the wall where waiter service is available, the skinny little guy who lets people have one of them decided he liked me.  He said it aloud to our small group, “You can stay here.  I like her!”  I blew him a kiss. “A kiss yet!” he exclaimed, wiping his hands on his Katz’s apron.  “Extra pickles for the table!”

[You see? Sex — if you can call it that — works everywhere!]

Did I mention the servings were huge?  Yes, I did.  But I have pictorial evidence as well.  I ordered a bowl of pea soup and half a liverwurst sandwich on rye. The half a sandwich was at least three inches high.  Here’s the liverwurst I had to take out of it before eating it open-faced. [One of the younger members of our party ate the half slice of rye bread I didn’t want, but nobody was interested in the extra liverwurst.]

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I couldn’t finish the bowl of thick homemade split pea soup or my share of the table’s steak fries either, and I’m not a dainty eater:

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[The children’s father, who did manage to knock off nearly all of his hot pastrami sandwich on rye, bottom right of photo, explained he had only had a banana for breakfast and that was why he was able to finish.]

So were we sated?  Ho-ho-ho.  Passing up Katz’s New York cheesecake (under other circumstances tempting), we trotted across the street for artisinal ice-cream.  Made in a “laboratorio!”

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Thought I was kidding, didn’t you? Where else would a “gelato” be made artisinally, but in a “laboratorio?”

Decisions, decisions! So many flavors to choose from!

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But eventually each young person got a plastic dish of two small scoops for $4.25 (plus tax), and gustatory happiness was complete. (I understand their father later explained the principle of inflation whereby “Victoria’s” ice cream cost a penny and the laboratorio’s gelato cost 425 times as much — but I wasn’t there to hear the explanation, so wouldn’t dare paraphrase. I’m sure you more or less understand the gist of it already.)

Then we waddled back to the Tenement Museum for another hour-long tour, focussed on economic issues.  (It was from this second tour leader that I obtained the information provided earlier about one-room houses being replaced by “modern” tenements in the mid-nineteenth century.)  We visited a second-floor apartment as it looked when occupied by its original German tenants in 1865, and there heard about the limited social support structures then in place for a family with four children when the father took off for parts unknown. After that we moved on to one of the last apartments occupied, in 1935, after electricity had at last arrived, and cold running water, too.  There was a framed photograph of FDR on the wall here, and a radio looking very much like one I barely remember my parents owning when I was a small girl, and even a bathtub — although the tub was in the small kitchen, covered by a slab that served as a table when the tub was not in use; when a bath was contemplated, the slab needed to be removed and the tub filled with water heated in pots on the gas-fired stove.

But I’m sure after all that food at Katz’s, you’re in no mood for more sociology and economics.  So I shall leave you on Orchard Street, gazing up at the fire escapes that were a feature of every New York apartment house, even when I was growing up:

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And if you want to pick up a few more books in the museum shop before calling it a day, here are three somewhat lighter in content than the ones we looked at earlier in the day:

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Don’t tarry in the shop too long, though. I forgot to mention it’s quite a walk to the nearest subway.  Also it’s not so easy to find a taxi if you wait till four in the afternoon. That’s when the day guys go home and the evening drivers are just coming on duty.

But if you get out on the street and wave your arms wildly, maybe one will stop for you.  Especially if you’re 83 (even if you don’t quite look it), stand straight, smile while you’re waving, and have pretty good legs.  Blowing the driver a kiss as he seems to be slowing down for you can’t hurt, either.  Good luck!

WHEN DOES “OLD” BEGIN? — A GUEST POST

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[Although I’ve begun to think of people in their 60’s as “still young,” I realize that’s just a matter of perspective.  There was a time when I thought 50 was “old.”   Here’s a piece by Martha Mendelsohn, a New York-based writer colleague of mine who’s at least twelve years younger than I am. It first appeared in the Winter 2011-2012 issue of Persimmontree, an online magazine of the arts by women over sixty, as a response to a request for short pieces about “The Next Step.”  I enjoyed reading it when it was published there, and felt it certainly also deserved a place in a blog about getting old in a world where most other people, who appear to be getting younger every year, have begun to treat you as if you’re somewhat older than you still feel.  I should add that Martha has curly streaky-blonde hair, probably wears a size 2 or 4 and looks damn good — not just “for her age” but for any age.]

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 ACCEPTANCE

by Martha Mendelsohn

The members of my book group were downing the dregs of the Manchego and wine when L. cleared her throat: “This may sound like a weird question—but do I look okay?”

Surely that was a rhetorical question. “You look more than okay,” we hastened to reassure her. With her twinkling blue eyes and deep dimples, L., at 68, was still an undeniably attractive woman. “Because as soon as I got on the subway,” L. continued, “a man, who couldn’t have been under 50, offered me his seat.”

A groan of recognition arose. It seemed that all of us recent Medicare recipients had been subjected to this particular brand of public transportation gallantry, and none of us appreciated it. Maybe we could no longer take the subway steps three at a time, but we went to the gym, chased after grandkids, and still worked. We were not about to throw ourselves under the train tracks for these unwanted acts of kindness, but we deemed them offensive.

J. was the most outraged. She had spent much time and money having the quotation mark between her eyebrows and other signs of age erased, but that didn’t stop a passenger from insisting she take her seat on the crosstown bus. Someone suggested: “Next time, just say, ‘Thanks, but I’m not pregnant.’”

I find myself thinking that the only time anyone should cede a seat is for a pregnant woman or any passenger, whether 19 or 90, with an obvious infirmity. Why shouldn’t an obviously still-mobile person of a certain age be allowed to remain standing? I was on the bus with my husband when a not-so-young woman bolted up, begging him to take her seat. (He acquiesced reluctantly.) “This man plays eight hours of tennis a week,” I informed her, even though in truth it annoyed me how much time he spent on the courts.

For now, hoping to head off seat offers, I hide my under-eye pouches behind sunglasses. But I encounter other affronts: At doctors’ offices, I routinely am called “hon,” “sweetie,” and “dear.” Will the time come when I feel grateful for such endearments and those thoughtful riders willing to yield their seats? Will I ever reach the point where “pushing 70” doesn’t sound like it refers to my mother?

The next step is to accept my age. To accept the seat.

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[Martha has also written a page-turner of a YA novel which is scheduled for publication in April 2015 and may be pre-ordered at Amazon.  It’s called The Bromley Girls and is about a Jewish girl’s experience with latent anti-semitism as a sophomore at an exclusive and expensive girls’ private school in Manhattan in the 1950’s. If there are young readers in your extended family and circle of friends, you may want to check it out.]

DEAREST OF MEMORIES

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Bill and I have finally completed our major intellectual undertaking of the year.  To be entirely accurate, I have. Bill fell away after six lengthy chapters. (There were eighteen all told.) I speak, of course, of getting through Ulysses, that 644 page behemoth of a book in which James Joyce commemorated forever June 16, 1904 in the lives of three Dubliners — Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom and his wife Molly.  We did not undertake this effort alone. There was an eight-week class, and a wonderful professor, and lots of support from extracurricular sources enumerated in some detail in a previous post about Bloom defecating in his outhouse.

But did I really read all clotted 644 pages carefully, scout’s honor?  Um, no.  However, where I skimmed, I skimmed judiciously, certainly putting in even more time than I had anticipated.  And as it has now clogged up two whole months of my life, if I ever pick up that book again, which I very well may, it won’t be to read it from cover to cover.  Once you know the lay of the land, so to speak (as I do by now), you can dip in and out where it pleases you.

So what will I remember after all this labor?  The same passage I remembered after I read it at twenty:  Molly Bloom’s memory of the day sixteen years earlier when Leopold proposed to her on Howth’s head above Dublin and they made love for the first time. She was eighteen, he was twenty-two. (It’s the final passage in the forty pages of stream of consciousness which constitutes the last chapter of the book.)

Does this mean I haven’t matured at all in sixty-three years?  Perhaps. But I like to think I will remember that last part of Molly’s soliloquy now, together with Bloom’s memory of the same event, not because it’s sexy (my reason at twenty) — but because that day on Howth’s head remains the dearest of memories for both husband and wife at the close of the book, although it is now far in the past and their marriage is fraught with current and unresolved difficulties.

It may be that as a lady getting on in life I am more optimistic than a younger person might be about the power of dear memories to hold people together.  But there it is.  I am that lady.  Also — point for my side — Molly ends with a single word:  Yes.  Which has to count for something.

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Leopold’s memory comes while he’s having lunch: a gorgonzola cheese sandwich with mustard, cut in strips, and a glass of burgundy wine:

(p. 144)

Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed. Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgundy. Sun’s heat it is. Seems to a secret touch telling me memory. Touched his sense moistened remembered. Hidden under wild ferns on Howth below us bay sleeping: sky. No sound. The sky. The bay purple by the Lion’s head. Green by Drumleck. Yellowgreen towards Sutton. Fields of undersea, the lines fain brown in grass, buried cities. Pillowed on my coat she had her hair, earwigs in the heather scrub my hand under her nape, you’ll toss me all. O wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweet-sour of her spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft warm sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. A goat. No-one. High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nanny goat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright.  Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.

Many pages later, Molly’s memory comes in bed, in the wee hours of morning, as she reviews her day, her life, her youth [she feels old at 34]:

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….the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leap year like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a woman’s body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldn’t answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didn’t know of…[here Molly considers her boyfriends and kisses and experiences in Gibraltar, where she grew up] ….and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

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I wish us all such memories, when our hearts were going like mad.

A KIND OF HEAVEN (A REBLOG)

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[When TGOB was new last November, this was the fourth piece I posted. Everything in it remains true. Bill and I are now one year older than when I wrote it, but we’re still here.  Keep your fingers crossed…. ]

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 If I’m lucky, our cat Sasha may push back the slightly open door of our bedroom in the early morning, arrive silently at my side of the bed, miaow once to announce her presence, and wait for me to peer over the side at her. She is beautiful, with a large round head, piercing lemon-yellow eyes and a slight silver sheen to her bluish grey fur.

Silly girl. She thinks she needs an invitation. I inch back a bit towards Bill to make more space between me and the edge, and pat the mattress. “Hi Sasha. Hi sweetheart. Come on. Come on up, Sosh.” I use my talking-to-a-young-child voice, perfectly serviceable in another context forty-odd years later.

She thinks about it. She might still decide to make for the litter box in the adjoining bathroom; get a drink or a snack from one of the two bowls against the wall; head for the Shaker-style set of chairs tied together to make a bench by the double window. There she can look out under the light-proof shade to the leafy street.

But no. This time it’s me and my obliging right hand she wants. Up she jumps into the waiting space, turns around once, twice — sometimes three times — then collapses against me. Her head is towards the foot of the bed, but at just the right horizontal meridian for me slowly to stroke her silky forehead, deeply furred cheeks, velvet ears, and whole delicious length all the way to the thick tail extended against my cheek.

After a while she gives a half-turn so that my hand can do her belly, a paradise of angora down. Claws in, her paws manipulate me. She knows exactly where she wants it — up, down, between the spread legs, not quite there, a little higher. I obey, a lover wishing only to please. All of her vibrates with a low rumbling purr. She is happy.

I am happy, too. I lie on my back, eyes closed — right hand on her, left hand clasped in Bill’s — enveloped in creaturely security. I feel his even breathing along one side of me, hers along the other against my midsection — all of us warmly wrapped in quilt, conjoined, our three hearts beating steadily.

I want it to last forever. (Don’t say anything. I know, I know.) And sometimes, since neither Bill nor I need jump to the ring of an alarm, it does last — if not forever, at least for a couple of hours. Sasha falls asleep, my hand stills, imperceptibly Bill and I doze off, in the comfort of a time-suspended dream.

MY THREE-MINUTE ENGAGEMENT

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It was October 1994; I was again between husbands. (Between second husband and Bill, to be precise.) In other words, I was at liberty.  And working at a very large law firm, second largest in Boston.

This law firm (I name no names) was so large, for Boston, that it occupied many floors of a building a whole square block around.  There were so many floors it took three or four minutes for the elevator to get from the top one to the lowest.  The firm employed upwards of 300 lawyers on those floors, plus 400 in support staff, not counting the mail room.  Also pertinent to this story is that many of those 700 people sort of knew who I was.  Not because I had done such extraordinary things in court (I hadn’t), but because I was the only woman in the firm with a New York accent. Unlike anyone else who worked there, I sounded as if I’d come right out of a Woody Allen movie.

Levity aside, you didn’t have much spare time for lolly-gagging around if you practiced law at this big firm.  But you had a little bit.  It was still before cell phones and working from home. When you finally did get to leave, you were relatively free of the office and law for a while.  Which is how I was able to take an advertised walk with a Boston Park Ranger through the Emerald Circle of Boston’s municipal parks on the first Saturday in October. I did it to knock myself out so I would be too tired in the evening to indulge in self-pity, all alone by the telephone.

While dutifully admiring nineteenth-century statues of important historical figures on the Boston Common, I fell in with another walker; she was about my age, also divorced with two grown sons, and also living in Cambridge.  (A social worker, but you can’t have everything.) We went home together on the Red Line. Just before I got out at the Harvard Square stop, she asked how I felt about Mort Sahl.  He was coming to Cambridge for a two week run at the Hasty Pudding Theater on Holyoke Street.  Would I like to go with her the following Saturday night?

In all candor, I felt nothing for Mort Sahl.   By then I had seen him in performance three times.  First with a blind date, when I was very young and he was still unknown; next with first husband, when I was not yet thirty and he was very famous;  last with second husband, when I was not quite middle-aged and his career was not quite gone. So I’d had plenty of opportunity to decide he wasn’t my type. In spite of that, I agreed to go. It wasn’t as if I had anything better to do next Saturday night.

Attention, those of you not yet adults in the early 1960s:  Run, don’t walk, to Wikipedia to look up Mort Sahl.  His photo there will show you a tall, dark-haired man with a devilish grin.  You’ll learn he was born in 1927, had been married twice by the time of this story, was the first ever American performer to make it in stand-up comedy discussing current events and politics.  He was especially popular with East and West Coast intelligentsia — who jammed themselves into smart clubs on both coasts whenever and wherever he appeared, if only to say they’d seen him in action.

You’ll also learn how he would stroll to the mike so casually, wearing his signature sweater, with signature rolled-up newspaper in hand — and then let fire into a hot packed room. He was swift, sharp, biting, bitter. And merciless.  In 1960 Time Magazine called him “Will Rogers with fangs.”

My new friend brought another friend to the performance; I never did catch this one’s name.  The nameless friend had long streaming grey hair, flowing garments and practiced some kind of spiritual balance therapy with pyramids, algae and crystals.  Definitely not my type, either.

We accordingly chose a seating arrangement that allowed new friend and nameless friend to coo at each other till showtime, leaving me to case the room. Judging by the scatterings of silver heads and wispy white beards, we were an aging group. No young folks at all.  And plenty of empty seats.

Then the theater dimmed, the stage lights went on, the feature attraction strolled out to the mike.  He was still wearing a sweater, still carrying a rolled-up newspaper, still tall.  But the dark hair was grey, the grin querulous, the quips tired and forced.

And soon a new disquiet emerged from his discourse:  the end of his twenty-four year marriage. How he’d tried, how much it hurt, why it shouldn’t have ended.  Mort Sahl without fangs. The audience stirred restlessly. Two or three got up to go.  Didn’t he realize?  Didn’t he care?  My type or no, I began to feel bad for him. How could he humiliate himself like that?  Shut up  about the lost wife already and start snarling.

But he didn’t.  Or couldn’t.  On and on and on he went, laboring past the absence of response, the awful silences.  Until it was over. A few feeble claps. The doors opened. At last: a breath of fresh air.

I ruminated all weekend. About the fleetingness of fame, aging men and their lack of resilience. About what really matters, and what doesn’t.  By Monday morning, I had come to a decision.  I was going to write him a letter. Monday night I did.

What do you write an aging comedian whose sun seems to have set?

October 10, 1994

Dear Mort Sahl:

I was at the 7 p.m. show last Saturday, very pleased to be seeing you again in your red sweater still doing your thing to a gratified audience.  What was particularly pleasing for me has to do with an evening at the end of summer 1952, when I predicted your future to my date.

In August 1952, I was fresh out of college, an insecure little girl from the East whose parents had just moved to L.A. with daughter in tow. (No, I didn’t resist, which tells you something right there.) On that evening I was brought to a so-called party at someone’s apartment by a physically unprepossessing blind date (short! and with a big nose!) — the son of someone my mother had met at a beauty parlor.  He was in training to do psychotherapy.  Our disenchantment with each other was mutual; I never saw him again after that.

Among the other guests was you, sitting on the floor, looking unkempt, unshaved and somewhat ragged, and holding forth to the assembled with what I took for (and may well have been) venom and rancor about practically everything but especially the under-appreciation which you had been accorded in San Francisco, from whence you had just come in a state of apparent destitution.  During the interstices of your performance from the floor, my date whispered that you were the current boyfriend of still another guest, who was putting you up and feeding you while you purportedly tried to get on your professional feet in L.A.

It was very hot.  I was wearing — with maximum discomfort — that summer’s requisite outfit for the upwardly mobile: a waist cincher, a strapless bra that felt as if it were sliding down, two scratchy crinolines, a heavily quilted off-the-shoulder Anne Fogarty dress with a circle skirt and three-inch wide belt that dug into the ribs and also made gas, because it prevented the proper digestion of dinner.  In addition, I wore several pounds of makeup which were threatening to slide away in a flood of perspiration if we didn’t get out of there soon.  Not surprisingly, I did not feel benign.

“A loser,” I pronounced to the date with finality as we made our getaway.  “Now there’s someone who’ll never amount to anything.”

****************

Well.  I first went to see you perform (for money) in New York, in the company of husband number one — about four or five years later, I think.  It may have been at the Blue Angel. Husband number one dragged me. The sweater wasn’t red yet, the crowds were huge, you were too quick for most of the audience and at times, to my chagrin, too quick for me.  Husband number one, who was able to keep up, thought you were great.

The second time I saw you perform was again in New York, during one of your later renascences, but with husband number two.  I dragged husband number two.  The sweater was now red, you were much mellower, and mercifully slower on the draw.  No more semi-automatic attack weapons.  I could keep up.  Husband number two, the unwilling attendee, thought you were great.

This time, newly resident in Cambridge, I and a 1950′s-vintage lady neighbor I had recently met decided to go together. (No dragging.)  But she dragged still another lady I did not know.  Both ladies turned out to be into crystals, green algae, and the like.  I don’t know what the two ladies thought.  I thought you were great.

If it weren’t for the presence of the two ladies, who began clamoring to get to Chef Chow for Chinese food as soon as you walked off, I would have come back stage to tell you so. (I probably would also have talked about survivors, and change, and process, and heavy stuff like that, if you actually have real conversations when you’re off stage.)  But I couldn’t and therefore didn’t. Hence this letter.

I’ve never written a fan letter to anyone before, and probably never will again, but it seems unlikely that either of us will last another forty-two years, so here it is.

[I’m also sorry that you are lonely sometimes and that the end of your marriage hurts you so much — inappropriate as such remarks may be in a letter of this kind.]

If you ever come back to these un-Hollywoodlike parts, and feel like getting in touch, please do.

Take care and be well.

Nina Mishkin

***************

 I put my home address on the letter and mailed it.  I had done what I could. A summary judgment motion was waiting in my office. It was Tuesday morning, I was only half done, and the whole thing, with supporting documents, had to be filed by 4 p.m. Friday. Or the client would be in the soup, and I’d be out the door.[Those were the fun days of my life! The pay was pretty good, though, if you could stand the pain.]

I made it.  No soup, no door.   And not a peep out of Mort Sahl, either.  When I had time to think about him again, I wondered if my letter had ever reached him. I’d sent it to the theater, not knowing where else it should go. Was that like the Black Hole of Calcutta?

Oh well.  It was a pretty good weekend, all things considered: Hairdresser, shopping, pistachio ice cream in bed.  But not for the lawyer I shared a secretary with; he was slaving away his Saturday in the office.    [Yes, we did that sometimes.  Correction: more than sometimes.]

Let’s say this lawyer’s name was Jim.  It wasn’t, but let’s say anyway.  If my phone were to ring when I wasn’t there, the call would go to our secretary.  And if she wasn’t there but Jim was, he’d be the one who picked up. (Thinking, no doubt, it was for him.) That Saturday, my phone did ring. Jim answered, and put the message on our secretary’s desk.  Come Monday, she saw it before I did.

Did she ever get busy!  Soon every secretary on our floor knew what was in my message. Then the news flew, like wildfire, to other floors. Don’t legal secretaries have anything to do except gossip (as one of them put it) about “lawyers in love?”

By the time I showed up at 9:33 (after three minutes in the elevator) and saw the yellow sticky now squarely centered on my desk, I must have been the last to know what Jim had written on it:

Nina –

You got a call from Mort Sahl.  He’s at the Charles Hotel, 864-1200.  Call him Monday if you don’t see this before then.

Jim  (Saturday – 2:20 p.m.)

Oh, Mort.  Why the office?  I gave you my home address!  Couldn’t you have asked Information for that number instead?

I closed the door before I dialed.  (Yes, I was nervous.)  The hotel switchboard connected me.

The familiar voice was cautious:  “Hello?”

I explained who I was.

The voice warmed up.  “That was a great letter!”

Me: Glad you liked it. (This was true.)

He: You’re a lawyer?

Me (evasive):  Mmm.

He (skipping over the lawyer part): A really great letter. I’d like to see you.

Me: I’d like that, too.

(Awkward pause.)

Me again: Will you be here long?

He: Flying out this afternoon.

Me (disheartened): “Oh.”

He (encouraged by the disheartened “oh”): “But I’ll be back.  We’re doing another show in the East in December.  Maybe then?”

Me: Absolutely.

He: Okay.

Me: Okay.

He: Bye, then.

Me: Bye.

Well, what did you expect?  Romeo and Juliet?

Important Rule of Life:  It’s not enough for news to travel, it has to change and grow as well.  At one in the afternoon when I got back into the elevator for lunch, the head of my department was in the elevator, too. This dour lady lawyer had always disapproved of me. She didn’t like that I sometimes laughed. She considered my remarks about the environmental problems caused by underground storage tanks insufficiently serious. But today her thin face was wreathed in smiles.

“Nina!” she cried joyously as the elevator doors closed on us. I thought she might  be going to hug me.  “Congratulations! I hear you’re engaged to Mort Sahl!”

That’s probably the high point of this story.  It’s all downhill from here on.  Beginning with the three whole minutes in the elevator it took to get myself un-engaged. Dis-engaged?  You know what I mean.  So maybe I should stop while I’m ahead.  But I’d be lying if I let you think I didn’t watch The Boston Globe and The New York Times like a hawk for the next two months. However, if Mort ever came East again that year, it got by me.

Ah, don’t fret.  There is a happy ending. Three happy endings actually, if you take the long view.

  1.  The dour lady lawyer who headed up our department began to look on me more favorably.
  2.  Two years later, Mort Sahl found a new wife.
  3.  Seven years later, I met Bill, who’s more my type.

Also, Mort was right.  It was a great letter. And we both still have that.

LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU, MAYBE

Standard

The topic for today is “Jewish Haiku,” which I found nicely typed out in a folder of keepers stashed away in the front drawer of my father’s desk, where I’m not usually prone to go looking.  Until I did. And there they were.

Given that my shortish-term memory is going the way of my energy level and the perkiness of my behind, I cannot now recall when or from whom I originally received them, and certainly hope I don’t wake up tomorrow morning to an offended email from the donor reminding me.  (As happened with the flashmob performance of “Ode to Joy” a few weeks back.) Be that as it may, their presence in the keeper folder means at one time I found them irresistible. And what do you know? I still do.

However, to post, or not to post? That is the question.

If you’ve never had Jewish guilt or what is known stereotypically as “a Jewish mother” (not all Jewish mothers are), if you don’t know about mohels performing ritual circumcisions on the eighth day after birth or about bar mitzvah ceremonies for boys at thirteen (“Today I am a man”), or that observant male Jews cover their heads with a (usually black) Yarmulke, or that Yom Kippur is the annual Day of Atonement, or that lobster (or any other shellfish) isn’t kosher and therefore mustn’t be eaten, or that food is very important at all times, or that the worst is almost always certain to happen, or that after a death the family sits shiva at home for five days to receive friends and not be alone with their grief — then you probably won’t get what’s going on here.

On the other hand, I’ve already just explained most of the important stuff. So let’s give it a try.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Drop out whenever you’ve had it. Don’t be shy about asking questions. But please don’t ask for more.  By the time you get to the end, I’m sure you won’t want to. There comes a point when enough is enough.

***************

JEWISH HAIKU

***

After the warm rain

the sweet smell of camellias.

Did you wipe your feet?

***

Looking for pink buds

to prune, the old moyel

wanders among his flowers.

***

Today I am a man.

Tomorrow I will return

to the seventh grade.

***

Testing the warm milk

on her wrist, she sighs softly.

But her son is forty.

***

The sparkling blue sea

reminds me to wait an hour

after my sandwich.

***

Tea ceremony —

fragrant steam perfumes the air.

Try the cheese danish.

***

Lacking fins or tail

the gefilte fish swims with

great difficulty.

***

Yom Kippur — Forgive

me Lord for the Mercedes

and all that lobster.

***

My nature journal —

Today I saw some trees and birds.

I should know the names?

***

Like a bonsai tree,

your terrible posture

at my dinner table.

***

Beyond Valium is

the peace of knowing one’s child

is an internist.

***

Jews on safari —

map, compass, elephant gun,

hard sucking candies.

***

Coroner’s report —

“The deceased, wearing no hat,

caught his death of cold.”

***

The sparrow brings home

too many worms for her young.

“Force yourself,” she chirps.

***

Jewish triathlon:

gin rummy, then contract bridge,

followed by a nap.

***

The shiva visit:

So sorry about your loss.

Now back to my problems.

***

Our youngest daughter,

our most precious jewel, hence

the name, Tiffany.

***

Mom, please! There is no

need to put that dinner roll

in your pocketbook.

***

Seven-foot Jews in

the NBA slam-dunking!

My alarm clock rings.

***

Concert of car horns

as we debate the question

of when to change lanes.

***

Sorry I’m not home

to take your call. At the tone

please state your bad news.

***

Is one Nobel Prize

so much to ask from a child

after all I’ve done?

***

Today, mild shvitzing.

Tomorrow, so hot you’ll plotz.

Five-day forecast: feh

***

Passover — Left the door open

for the Prophet Elijah.

Now our cat is gone.

***

Quietly murmured

at Saturday services,

Yanks 5, Red Sox 3.

***

A lovely nose ring —

excuse me while I put my

head in the oven.

***

Hard to tell under 

the lights — white Yarmulke or

male-pattern baldness?

***

(Yes, enough.)