A Taste for Jazz and Lime-Vanilla Ice

img_6499To honor the memory of my cousin Martin Slobin, z”l, I am reposting blog post #14 from February 24, 2015. We lost Marty on December 6, 2001.

With love to Marty and my Aunt Bess, z’l and my Aunt Rose, z’’l.   Cherished.

***

I was one of those precocious little Suzuki violin kids. We were schooled strictly in classical music, that is, as soon as we could scrape through Mississippi River. My first violin was quarter size and our early training involved marching around the room trying to keep the violins tucked under our little chins. Tiny violins bounced everywhere. But music really exploded for me on Sunday afternoons when I got to watch Bill Kennedy at the Movies on WKBD-TV channel 50 in Detroit. Bill Kennedy was the faded, slightly pompous former B movie actor who hosted the show. He had this one great scene as a tennis pro with Bette Davis in Dark Victory, which he referred to often.   It was here that I watched my first musicals: Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, Meet me in St. Louis, The Band Wagon. This was the music, these were the songs that I really fell in love with, the ones that stuck in my head.

Someone noticed.

That person was my cousin Marty.

He wasn’t at all the type of person you’d expect to notice things. But he did.

Marty was my mother’s first cousin. He shared an apartment with my two great Aunts. my grandmother’s sisters, Bess and Rose. My grandmother lived alone in the apartment across the way. My sisters and I would always see the Aunts and Marty at holiday dinners or be trooped unwillingly across the parking lot to visit their little apartment. It was hot in there and there wasn’t much to do except answer questions about whatever it was we were doing. The Aunts hung on our every word and beamed at us for even the smallest accomplishments. We should have feasted on this avalanche of praise and affection but we didn’t really. We felt squirmy and uncomfortable.

At some point in the conversation, Marty, Bess’s grown up son, would be summoned from his room to say hello to us. Marty’s room was a great mystery. No one was ever allowed in there. Not even my Aunts. But the door was ajar once and I peeked inside.   What I saw was a fantastic jumble of books and records amidst the whorl of an unmade bed. It was a mess, it was utter comfort, it was a refuge and a fortress. It reminded me a lot of my bedroom at home.

Marty always entered the living room slowly and bashfully even though this was his home, he was the adult and we were just little kids.

He was a heavyset man with dark curly hair. He smiled a lot. He perspired a lot too—the apartment was kept extra warm for my Aunts—so much so that his thick black glasses slid constantly down his nose. But the look of appreciation on his face, no matter if I was talking about whatever old movie I’d just seen, what music I’d played or some song I loved, was real.

I was probably self-importantly talking about some play that I’d been in at camp when he got really excited and went to his room. He returned with Allan Sherman’s My Son, the Nut, which he placed gently on the turntable. Marty was the first person to play “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah “ for me. I got it. It was cool. The albums that were stacked along side were by people like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. I wasn’t ready for them yet. Not by a long shot.

At holiday dinners he usually didn’t say much. He would always wear a tie although he always looked like he’d rather take it off. If there were uncomfortable silences he would always talk and talk about how much he loved the spinach.

On the violin I learned how to play Leroy Anderson’s Fiddle Faddle and would have gone crazy with joy if I had somehow heard about jazz violinist Joe Venuti but I didn’t. I was a high octane behind the scenes high school theatre person. I did my best to keep up in chorus class. I was hurt that I wasn’t a part of the revered Madrigals singing group at Kingswood (my sister Lisa was) but I still found that I completely and totally loved harmonic singing.

I overheard that several times a year Marty would take the train to Toronto to go to Jazz clubs or Jazz festivals. I don’t know who he saw up there. Chick Corea? Charlie Mingus? I don’t remember him playing that music for us on those afternoon visits. Was he too shy? Did he feel his connection to that music too private to share? Or did he know that to truly fall in love with something you need to discover it yourself?

I had heard the stories. That he had asthma and terrible allergies. That he was babied by his mother, my Aunt Bess, who coddled and overfed him. That he wasn’t allowed out to play much as a little kid and had a way of running with his flat feet slapping the pavement and his arms flapping wildly in the air. That he hated driving and took the bus, a true anomaly in car crazy Detroit. That he was smart. Really, really smart.

Over the years he never once made one of those cringe worthy comments about “how much I’d grown.” But I knew he noticed when he said that I reminded him of Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer. By then I liked songs like Sing, Sing, Sing, Java Jive, and Dream a Little Dream of Me. Progress.

After college I lived in Brooklyn before Brooklyn was cool. I stretched meager paychecks by buying groceries at Balducci’s with my Dad’s American Express card. But one night I went to the renowned Blue Note all by myself, to hear “The Divine One”, Sarah Vaughan. In that cramped jazzy space, I sat alone at the bar drinking Bloody Marys at nighttime. It was the only drink I knew how to order. But there, on that wonderful night, I actually heard Sassy herself sing Misty.

After that night I knew why Marty went to the Jazz clubs in Toronto.

I was away from home for a long time. I grew up, I worked, I married, I had children. Back in Detroit, my Aunts died. Marty was left alone. He moved to his own apartment.   Alone a lot in New York, I listened to music. On my own I discovered Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. Peggy Lee. The Boswell Sisters.

Then Marty died as well.

He was only 55. It was from his obituary that I learned that he was a revered and award winning Political Science lecturer at the University of Michigan Dearborn, known for both his bristling intellect and unfailing kindness to his students.

It had never occurred to me to ask what kind of work he did.

Of all the stories in Ray Bradbury’s beautiful Dandelion Wine my favorite is “The Swan”. Drawn together at a soda fountain over the unusual order of “a dish of lime-vanilla ice” young Bill Forrester meets and befriends 95-year-old Helen Loomis. Despite the extreme differences in age the two form a transcendent bond. It’s clear they were meant to be together, but according to Helen, just not in this life. Maybe the next. Or perhaps the next one after that. Ray Bradbury does not leave us with a happy ending in this story but instead with a wistful, open-ended one.

Maybe this is true for lost friendships as well.

But all I know is that I desperately miss someone I never really knew at all.

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Post #58: Apples and Honey

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Late Afternoon

It has gone on like this for the longest while.  I jitter crazily  from moment to moment and  place to place only to finally stumble through the front door and bumble to the kitchen.  My anxiety is rising like a kettle shriek.   A haphazard glance through the cupboards, and then,  like an out of control tobbaganer careening down a mountain, I begin. A dissonant medley of ingredients tumble onto the counter — dried pineapple?  farro? cumin? pickled jalapeños?  along with  unnerving sleight of hand involving  knives, and somehow a steaming mound of something is piled on a plate. It’s edible, really it is, or at least it should be.   I stare. Oh please. Just eat it and be done with it and let’s get moving now, shall we? I don’t have time, I never have time. Things to do, things to  do, such important things to do!

But for once I don’t do. Instead  I stop. I can’t swallow the words.

What am I doing?

Where am I going?

What am I thinking?

And truly, what on earth am I eating?

I realize that I don’t just want “something.”  What I want is something else.

And so, this evening I decide to get it.

***

Early Evening

I look in the cupboards once again. How could I have not noticed? It’s all there. Lentils and rice,  cumin and coriander, turmeric and all spice and cinnamon. The ingredients were there, right in front of me,  if only I had taken the time to put them together.  I slowly swirl them, meld them into a whole.

The onions are slivered and sliced into circles of sweetness, the rounds jump roped, piled up together in little hills and savannahs.  Why is it that slicing onions never makes me cry?

A shiver of flour then  a sizzling safflower bath.  A short paper toweled repose.  A final jumble and the whole is complete.

A mound of Mujadara. 

A spoonful, or maybe two…time to go. That was the plan all along.

Still warm and swathed in kitchen towels, I carry my prize carefully to the car, the bowl nestled on my lap.

It doesn’t spill.

They were not expecting dinner. They were not expecting me. But there it was and I was there. Their favorite. Mujadara.

They ate and ate. I simply watched. And somehow I felt full.

The meal I didn’t eat was the meal I dreamed of, the one I gave away, of course  left the sweetest taste on my tongue.

***

Just before Dawn

Oh, perhaps a bit more! Greedy thing that I am.

I wake up dreaming of something sweet. I yearn for it. I need it. I want it.  I make my way downstairs in the darkness and throw my cupboards open wide once again. I’ve been good, I  can have anything I want!

And so I do. I am craving  the edible jewels of fall. Apples. Honey Crisp.  Macoun. Braeburn.  Winesap.  Snapdragon.   This early morning, while the sun still slumbers,  I choose the best of the best.

A Snapdragon.

That should be enough, shouldn’t it?  But somehow not. I hesitate and then reach back into the tumble of my cupboard. Ah.  Of course. A jar of honey. 

I cut my apple gently into the thinnest possible slices.  I need to make it last.   Slowly I drizzle the honey on top.   And then at last, at long last,  I take a bite.  The clean snap of possibility zings and the taste lingers tantalizingly on my tongue.  I won’t forget.

A new year begins when I need it to begin. 

POST #39: WHAT WE DO. WHO WE ARE.

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 Lazar, Detroit, 1920

Really, no one could figure out how he did it. He was the marvel of the neighborhood. Quick and confident and proud, he never made a mistake.

He was a tiny, compact little man, wrapped in an apron. Standing tall behind the counter of his grocery store. He added every figure in his head. Every account, every transaction was there, etched clearly in his precise and ordered mind.

A very smart man. A grocery man.

A man who selflessly extended credit to his neighbors so they could bring food home to their families when times were hard.

A kind person.

***

David, Oswiecim, Poland, 1939

There he is, his chin jutting out proudly, his arm draped casually around the shoulders of his childhood friends, a bold, almost insolent grin on his face. A yellow star is crudely stitched onto his breast pocket.

Famous for his jokes (who else would have shoved the goat through the door when it opened for Elijah?) he knew the prayer book so thoroughly his hands made grip marks on the leather.

He will run away soon. They will catch him. They will hold him for five long years. The horrors were unspeakable. So he never spoke of them.

A new country and a new start.   Bent now from his suffering, but still powerfully strong, he works first as a bellhop. Then he stands for decades at a machine in a factory.

We knew he was never the same but we never knew who he’d been.

He was so very tired. But let a small child catch his eye? Radiance would spread over him that could warm the sun itself.

A kind person.

***

Erv, Chicago, 1960

No question about it, he is the coolest guy in the room. Hair brushed back, perfectly dressed. No double creases ever.

Nothing handed to him on a silver platter either. No silver spoons touch his lips. He’s been working since forever. Proud of it.

This guy truly knows how to be a friend. He’s got your back. Wait, Better than that. He’s figured out how to help everyone avoid making mistakes. He is beloved.

Don’t be fooled by the posing though. He knows how to turn a phrase. He can write poetry too.

Falsely accused, he refuses to capitulate to a bullying professor. He is denied graduation for a year. But he stands firm. He is right.

He is vindicated.

An eye doctor: he goes on to become one of the finest and most caring healthcare practitioners anywhere. Now he’s got everyone’s back.

A kind person.

***

Me, Bloomfield Hills, 1975

“She’s the smartest girl I’ve ever met. “

It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true. The person who made this declaration really was smart—brilliant even. What on earth could I have said that afternoon?

I really don’t remember.

I do remember sitting and talking to him though. I didn’t know enough to make pronouncements about anything at all. If I had, I’m certain I wouldn’t have been right.

I remember talking to him. I remember listening to him. I remember a gentle and generous conversation. He was nice.

That’s all. It wasn’t hard to be kind.

And at that time, for that boy, that might have been just enough.

I’m glad.

 

Above photo by Croze, Blessing and others: from The Saarinen Door,  published by Cranbrook Academy of Art and Printed by the Cranbrook Press c 1963.

 

 

SUPERGIRL IN A SWEATSHIRT

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It was sunny and breezy; at least that’s how I want to remember it. I know I went on a walk around the block with Charlotte our Sheepdog on one leash and Tina our Chihuahua on the other. Walking them wasn’t easy. As you can imagine, those two always wanted to go in opposite directions but I could handle it.   I could have even ridden my bike with a leash in each hand and gotten them around the block at the same time if I’d wanted to. Of course I could. I was Supergirl in a powder blue Snoopy sweatshirt.   There was going to be an ice cream cake from Baskin and Robbins later. It was a great day. I was ten, at last I was ten and I was as happy and as proud as I’ve ever been. And all I’d really done is make it to the double digits.

That’s the picture in the scrapbook of my mind. I return to it over and over, absolutely refusing to let the memory pull away like a piece of taffy leaving only wispy, tenuous strands. I want this one solid.

Time passes. Full of vigor and purpose, we spend our energy and our days doing Things. Becoming Someone. Crafting our own myths. Grappling, striving, racking up accolades and degrees and connections. Going to the right events. Seeing. Being seen. Inventing and reinventing ourselves. It’s called living and sometimes it’s a whirlwind so intense and so wonderful that there are no words to express it. And sometimes it’s a hurricane so awful, so dreadful that we can’t breathe and we are choked for words and we don’t know how we can go on. But we do.

Even if some of us are lucky enough to do what we dreamed of doing when we were ten it’s likely there’ve been a few disappointments, plenty of tedium, and many compromises along the way. Every Supergirl needs to file taxes and wash her cape occasionally.

Sometimes dreams themselves are thwarted or deferred because of unexpected forks in the road or demands of those who love and need us.   At those moments a chasm opens. And in those really bad and lonely times, some of us may even do ourselves the ultimate cruelty by convincing ourselves that our greatest success has been in our repeated failure.

Well then. It really is time to be Supergirl.

When you’re young you’re sure that adults have total control over everything. Every adult knows for sure that you have control over virtually nothing. Half the time we feel as if we’re bobbing about in the ocean, frantically clutching after a buoy.  Even the most overtly successful of us sometimes feel as if we’re phonies and that we’ve failed.

But we haven’t.

If life is complex, let’s at least keep this part of things simple:

You’ve remembered which of your children likes peanut butter sandwiches and which likes tuna. They will never forget that you always remembered.

You took a minute to respond to and then forward on some unknown kid’s email to a colleague. That kid found his mentor. Finding his mentor changed course of his whole life.

You looked a clerk in the eye at the grocery store. You said thanks.

You’ve really listened to a whole phone conversation with your mother without folding laundry, playing Words with Friends, or mentally working on your repartee.

You were wrong. You said so. You apologized.

You never mentioned that your friend didn’t utter one single coherent sentence that time when she was upset.

You responded to the email.

You were careful not to give standing ovations for every show.

You let someone lie to save face.

You looked behind you and held the door open.

You didn’t give away the punch line.

Your feelings were hurt. You talked it out. You got over it. Your friendship continued.

You didn’t jump to conclusions when it would have felt so self-righteously great to do so.

You noticed the new haircut.

You knew when to ask questions. You knew when not to.

You did that little bit extra. It might have even been a loved one’s birthday. You were far away. You went out and bought a slice of their favorite cake to eat so you could celebrate together from afar. This was not your favorite cake. You ate it anyway.

Let’s face it; the above list does not constitute the makings of a traditional killer resume. But that doesn’t make each tiny scenario any less powerful.  These are just the small heroics that punctuate our days, that form the ongoing web that invisibly binds us together. These are just a few of the unsung, unselfish and very kind acts of all you quiet superheroes.

You’re out there. You’re doing good. And thank you.

A TASTE FOR JAZZ AND LIME-VANILLA ICE

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I was one of those precocious little Suzuki violin kids. We were schooled strictly in classical music, that is, as soon as we could scrape through Mississippi River. My first violin was quarter size and our early training involved marching around the room trying to keep the violins tucked under our little chins. Tiny violins bounced everywhere. But music really exploded for me on Sunday afternoons when I got to watch Bill Kennedy at the Movies on WKBD-TV channel 50 in Detroit. Bill Kennedy was the faded, slightly pompous former B movie actor who hosted the show. He had this one great scene as a tennis pro with Bette Davis in Dark Victory, which he referred to often.   It was here that I watched my first musicals: Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, Meet me in St. Louis, The Band Wagon. This was the music, these were the songs that I really fell in love with, the ones that stuck in my head.

Someone noticed.

That person was my cousin Marty.

He wasn’t at all the type of person you’d expect to notice things. But he did.

Marty was my mother’s first cousin. He shared an apartment with my two great Aunts. my grandmother’s sisters, Bess and Rose. My grandmother lived alone in the apartment across the way. My sisters and I would always see the Aunts and Marty at holiday dinners or be trooped unwillingly across the parking lot to visit their little apartment. It was hot in there and there wasn’t much to do except answer questions about whatever it was we were doing. The Aunts hung on our every word and beamed at us for even the smallest accomplishments. We should have feasted on this avalanche of praise and affection but we didn’t really. We felt squirmy and uncomfortable.

At some point in the conversation, Marty, Bess’s grown up son, would be summoned from his room to say hello to us. Marty’s room was a great mystery. No one was ever allowed in there. Not even my Aunts. But the door was ajar once and I peeked inside.   What I saw was a fantastic jumble of books and records amidst the whorl of an unmade bed. It was a mess, it was utter comfort, it was a refuge and a fortress. It reminded me a lot of my bedroom at home.

Marty always entered the living room slowly and bashfully even though this was his home, he was the adult and we were just little kids.

He was a heavyset man with dark curly hair. He smiled a lot. He perspired a lot too—the apartment was kept extra warm for my Aunts—so much so that his thick black glasses slid constantly down his nose. But the look of appreciation on his face, no matter if I was talking about whatever old movie I’d just seen, what music I’d played or some song I loved, was real.

I was probably self-importantly talking about some play that I’d been in at camp when he got really excited and went to his room. He returned with Allan Sherman’s My Son, the Nut, which he placed gently on the turntable. Marty was the first person to play “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah “ for me. I got it. It was cool. The albums that were stacked along side were by people like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. I wasn’t ready for them yet. Not by a long shot.

At holiday dinners he usually didn’t say much. He would always wear a tie although he always looked like he’d rather take it off. If there were uncomfortable silences he would always talk and talk about how much he loved the spinach.

On the violin I learned how to play Leroy Anderson’s Fiddle Faddle and would have gone crazy with joy if I had somehow heard about jazz violinist Joe Venuti but I didn’t. I was a high octane behind the scenes high school theatre person. I did my best to keep up in chorus class. I was hurt that I wasn’t a part of the revered Madrigals singing group at Kingswood (my sister Lisa was) but I still found that I completely and totally loved harmonic singing.

I overheard that several times a year Marty would take the train to Toronto to go to Jazz clubs or Jazz festivals. I don’t know who he saw up there. Chick Corea? Charlie Mingus? I don’t remember him playing that music for us on those afternoon visits. Was he too shy? Did he feel his connection to that music too private to share? Or did he know that to truly fall in love with something you need to discover it yourself?

I had heard the stories. That he had asthma and terrible allergies. That he was babied by his mother, my Aunt Bess, who coddled and overfed him. That he wasn’t allowed out to play much as a little kid and had a way of running with his flat feet slapping the pavement and his arms flapping wildly in the air. That he hated driving and took the bus, a true anomaly in car crazy Detroit. That he was smart. Really, really smart.

Over the years he never once made one of those cringe worthy comments about “how much I’d grown.” But I knew he noticed when he said that I reminded him of Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer. By then I liked songs like Sing, Sing, Sing, Java Jive, and Dream a Little Dream of Me. Progress.

After college I lived in Brooklyn before Brooklyn was cool. I stretched meager paychecks by buying groceries at Balducci’s with my Dad’s American Express card. But one night I went to the renowned Blue Note all by myself, to hear “The Divine One”, Sarah Vaughan. In that cramped jazzy space, I sat alone at the bar drinking Bloody Marys at nighttime. It was the only drink I knew how to order. But there, on that wonderful night, I actually heard Sassy herself sing Misty.

After that night I knew why Marty went to the Jazz clubs in Toronto.

I was away from home for a long time. I grew up, I worked, I married, I had children. Back in Detroit, my Aunts died. Marty was left alone. He moved to his own apartment.   Alone a lot in New York, I listened to music. On my own I discovered Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. Peggy Lee. The Boswell Sisters.

Then Marty died as well.

He was only 55. It was from his obituary that I learned that he was a revered and award winning Political Science lecturer at the University of Michigan Dearborn, known for both his bristling intellect and unfailing kindness to his students.

It had never occurred to me to ask what kind of work he did.

Of all the stories in Ray Bradbury’s beautiful Dandelion Wine my favorite is “The Swan”. Drawn together at a soda fountain over the unusual order of “a dish of lime-vanilla ice” young Bill Forrester meets and befriends 95-year-old Helen Loomis. Despite the extreme differences in age the two form a transcendent bond. It’s clear they were meant to be together, but according to Helen, just not in this life. Maybe the next. Or perhaps the next one after that. Ray Bradbury does not leave us with a happy ending in this story but instead with a wistful, open-ended one.

Maybe this is true for lost friendships as well.

But all I know is that I desperately miss someone I never really knew at all.

WITH LOVE AND AFFECTION

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Every morning it’s the same.

An over easy egg, a slice of Tuscan Pane, a squiggle of olive oil, a twist of salt and another of pepper. An entire pot of French press coffee doled out half a cup at a time. It has to be drunk very hot. Always the same diner cup.

30 years – over 10,000 eggs.

A sweep second hand watch belted to my right wrist, and rolled inward, just like my Dad. We are both left-handed. Our watches are timed to the second. Eyeglasses are polished and secured firmly around my ears. I sleep in my glasses. Every night. It doesn’t matter that in the dark there is nothing to see. But in daytime, when the sights around me become too harsh, sometimes I’ll take my glasses off for a few moments and let the hard edges of the world blur into gentle softness.

Flaubert said, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you can be violent and original in your work.” Aside from the fact that I take issue with Flaubert’s somewhat patronizing view of the bourgeoisie, I clearly have embraced the “regular and ordinary.” For me, an egg and a perfectly timed watch are both touchstones and a rubric for the day, armor to protect myself from the unknown events that will surely come to pass. As for “violent and original,” even the word “violent” makes me tense. And I do find originality a bit of a fuzzy concept. I prefer to think that creation is something that is always enriched and textured by links to thought that both precedes and often surrounds creators. Maybe that’s why so many people who are so celebrated for originality feel as if they’re frauds. They’re not frauds—they simply are attuned enough to be part of the process.

But to return to the idea of “regular and ordinary” rhythms as a thrum through our days. Every so often there’s hard driving, guilt inducing article lashed out to the world on the steady, regular daily schedules and habits of either highly successful people or downright geniuses or more likely an envy-inducing combination thereof.

These are very Flaubert-like humans:  They wake early, go for long, bracing walks in all weathers, eat sparingly. Not to be overly critical but it’s rare to note that they rarely seem to spend their quality waking hours on little mundanities such as grocery shopping, house cleaning, cooking, and childcare.   I will be honest: I actually like the mundanities,  (I am a bourgeois to my soul, Flaubert!) I embrace them. There’s a fine sense of completion when I manage to fold a mountain of laundry or wrestle a mass of disparate ingredients into an edible dinner.

These small adventures are not for the faint of heart nor are they for everyone. But do I kind of like the thought of Dickens ambling through Target, Beethoven comparing jars of marinara at Trader Joe’s or Flaubert violently shoving a vacuum cleaner around the living room.

The order of my life does two things for me: it allows me pockets of calm. And gives me the possibility of safety.

I desperately need both. Genius or not, don’t we all?

I’m prepared then as well as I can be for real hurts, even the awfulest ones, where you lose a much loved companion. It happens. Of course it does. That carefully constructed structure, my egg, my watch, my grocery shopping, my rhythms, my whatever, is put in place to guard against inevitable pain. There is always happiness too, I revel in it, but I am always prepared for anything else. In this case, “anything else” will happen here soon.

And so in my pockets of calm I smile and remember. I think about one who really knows how to appreciate a good deep sleep. One whose generous heart has welcomed a lot of competition onto his beloved home turf.   One who (almost) uncomplainingly shares all the choice cuts as long as he is always is served first and rather fittingly gets the lion’s share. One who has managed to make all of us certain—in a million little ways– that we are each deeply loved. We adore him. He’s done good.

I don’t know for sure about Heaven. I cling to the idea of the Rainbow Bridge. I want so much to believe in both. All I know for sure is that memory is a powerful thing, a beautiful thing, an amazing thing that can and should infuse and enrich each and every day.

Okay enough. It’s funny. You never know where any conversation will lead you. I was comparing favorite Twilight Zone episodes with one of my sons recently. I’ll save my list of classics for another time. But he mentioned one of his favorites as Nothing in the Dark, starring a very young Robert Redford. The episode concerns an old woman who is terrified of dying. It’s never fair to spoil a Twilight Zone episode and I’m not about to do that here. But he did remind me of a key line from the show.  “What you thought was the end is the beginning.”

I hope that’s true for Big Nick when his time comes. I hope it’s true for all of us.  True for all those we cherish.

With love and affection, Big Buddy.

THE CLOTHES WE WEAR

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It was late at night on the subways, on a route I knew so well I could subconsciously feel the number of stops and know exactly when to stand for the exit tunnel up to home in Brooklyn. The car was practically empty. My bag was cradled in my lap. I was reading. I was always reading. Which meant that I was always looking down. The train jolted and I looked up to see a teenaged boy now sitting directly across from me in the otherwise empty car. A minute later I felt another kid sit down a seat away from me. A stop or two later the train bumped again. Two more teenagers were now standing on either side of the exit doors. There were four of them, all in hip-hop type clothes, covered in gold chains, who appeared to be surrounding me in an otherwise empty subway car very late on a Tuesday night. My stop was still far away. When the train pulled into the next station and the doors squealed open I shut my book, looked them in the eye, wished them all good evening. Then I walked calmly off the train. They were surprised, taken aback.   Politeness and decency does that to people sometimes. Not always. But sometimes.

In my earliest Girl Friday days, my voice still pitched high and twanged with the Midwest, I worked in the rabbit warren-like offices of the renowned A.A. Knopf. The Editor-in-Chief at the time was the legendary Robert Gottlieb, widely known as one of the most brilliant and most powerful people in book publishing. It was a fun place to work, for a lot of reasons. There were the free books (ostensibly to offset the awful wages) and the ongoing adventure of elevator roulette. The doors would slide open and famous people would pop out, everyone from Julia Child to Bob Dylan to then Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Welcome to our world. At some point in time Bob got fed up not just with suits and ties but kind of with getting dressed in general. He made a point of wearing the same pants every day. At first it was for a month but then he kind of got into it and it went on for a lot longer. But his frumpiness was about more than him not wanting to bother any more. I remember him saying it was an experiment. What it was, really was an unspoken challenge to everyone he met. How would he be treated? Would he be regarded as eccentric? Would those who knew him treat him as respectfully? Would he be treated well by people who didn’t? Would he be scorned? Ignored? Would people go beyond caring about what he wore to truly engage him? As it was, the most powerful editor in all of book publishing was often taken for a mailroom staffer. New authors, even famous ones, beware.

That was Bob Gottlieb’s story. But we’ve all been there, as any of us who’ve scooted furtively to the market in sweats with our flyaway hair yanked back in hasty ponytails will agree.

I’ve never worked in retail (shopping really overwhelms me) but I know people who do. I’ve heard that staffers at fancy stores are told to always check a customer’s shoes and purse. If said items appear to be sufficiently expensive, they are customers worth catering to. Otherwise, ignore them and wait for those who have money to spend.

Clothes are transformative, expressions can be deceptive, and a bad day can skew the equation in a million different ways.   People are confounding and mysterious. I am so often on shaky ground. I feel for myself, for us all. We see someone and our senses are assaulted, our minds forced to instantly jumble together the facts before us and figure out how to respond.  Can we be blamed for clinging to the most obvious signals people (knowingly or otherwise) put out? I’d like to say “no.” But the answer is “yes.”

Years later I find that I’ve taken up the Bob Gottlieb mantle, although I’m not in publishing any more, nor am I powerful. I like staying under the radar. I carry a small microfiber backpack for a purse; I’ve trimmed my wardrobe so I can dress quietly and with great comfort. This is my choice, at least my choice for the time being. (Although I adore seeing beautiful clothes on other people. So if you’re so inclined, please keep dressing well).

Hillel said “in a place where there is no hero, be a hero”. There are so many thorny, complex issues in the world today regarding how people are perceived—and how others perceive them as well. My issues are small. I am never going to lead a charge nor carry the mantel. But there are tiny prickles of heroism too. Giving the benefit of the doubt. Going beyond snap judgments. Reaching out.

All these years later, and I still don’t know if those boys on the train meant to hurt me.

But at least I know I didn’t hurt them.