Thursday, February 2, 2012

Them

From time to time during your tenure at the University of Southern California, you felt a pull of nostalgia that prompted you to avoid your normal route along Jefferson to Figueroa and your usual entrance at Gate Three, where the guard at the kiosk was always after you to read his screenplay. You’d veer off at Vermont Street, then turn south, past the mid 30’a of the numbered streets until you reached 42nd Street, at which point you headed west, in the direction you’d started from, but this time you were not merely moving into a familiar residential area, you were returning to your distant past.

Then, you’d park in the passenger loading zone adjacent another campus, a place where, for one seemingly endless summer, you played, reflected, experienced shivers you are now, from this remove and perspective, able to identify as dread.

The campus was Manual Arts High School.  You played there, reflected there, experienced morbid curiosity there because you lived directly across the street on 42nd Street in a two-story four-plex with your mother and older sister.  You were, the euphemism went, spending the summer with your maternal grandparents, Max and Rebecca.  The location was informally called the West Adams neighborhood, old, stately buildings from the turn of the century, substantial, a tad pretentious in their stucco, Mediterranean aspirations.

You were more than spending the summer.  Max and Becky were comfortably well off.  You felt their pleasure at being able to help out, which is to say take you in as you prepared for the move to what was to you terra incognita, the “back East” of your parents’ origins, the place where, in fact, Max and Becky achieved their comfort and well-off-ness.  This was the tail end of a time you’d heard referred to as The Great Depression. This was the place where the clothing stores owned and operated by Max and your father had come to grief, whereupon your father ventured into insurance sales, for which he had no heart.  He was now off “back East,” trying his hand at what seemed to you a magical-but-impractical venture.  You kept your opinions about the impracticality to yourself.  Even then, young as you were, you carried about with you opinions that reminded you of smoldering firecrackers; they could go off at any moment and get you into trouble.

Your sister, seven years your senior, was already in high school, not thrilled with the notion of not being able to complete her senior year where she’d started.  Had she remained in Los Angeles to finish high school, she’d have had in all probability to switch to Manual Arts by virtue of staying with our grandparents.  Perhaps it was from her that you picked up an instinctive dislike of even the thought of Manual Arts.  She confided to you that the schools where you and she were going would cause us to miss Manual Arts.  She was right.  She was right about any number of things, not the least of which was the notion that no matter where you went to school, you had to keep ahead of it, and the way to do that was through reading, asking questions teachers could not answer, and not taking schools at their word without having outside sources that agreed with what you were told in schools.

Two or three years later, you used another campus as your playground.  It had an entirely different feel than Manual Arts.  Your sister suggested that you might possibly consider going to this particular school and that you well might like it, but you would have to read and understand a great many books, and demonstrate qualities you were not sure you could possibly achieve.  Even though you only played there, to this day you have a special sense of regard for that “other” school, which is still Brown University.

More than any place you can think of, that dignified stucco four-plex on 42nd Street was your first jumping-off place into an abyss that extended beyond your childhood games and fantasies a scant ten or twelve miles away in the more west-central sections of Los Angeles where you spent so much more of your early life.  There were tangible unknowns before you, unknowns of a number of locales you’d have to absorb, interpret, attempt to understand.  There were unknowns of what you wished to be and how you would achieve the skills to make the necessary discovery; discoveries if more than one were necessary.  There were unknowns not only of who you were but who your parents were.

Fond as you were of Max and Becky, you felt stunning regret that you’d only just met for the first time your paternal grandmother, Elizabeth, and that you were cheated by the death of the grandfather you never knew.  You needed also to learn strategies that would help you cope with the appearance within Max and Becky of those most dread of all unauthorized visitors, aphasia and dementia.

During those later visits to where you lived with Max and Becky on 42nd Street, you see them before the aphasia and dementia came to stay with them.  You recall with the warmth of affection being Becky’s guide on the bus to the Kosher butcher on Brooklyn Avenue in what is now called Eastlos, but was then known as Boyle Heights.  Becky didn't really need you.  Although she was completely deaf and could not read English, although Max would have gladly driven her, she relished the bus and trolley excursion.

From time to time, you think you see traces of Max when you are shaving and least expect to see him.  Other times, you are sure you see Jake, your father, and you find yourself pausing for a moment, reaching to touch the mirror.  Your favorite cousin, Rose Marie, once told you that she saw traces of Grandpa Sam in you, particularly your gestures.

Once, at the “afterward” part of the funeral service for your brother-in-law, while you were filling a plate with salads and thin slices of pastrami, the woman in front of you turned, saw you, let out a sharp yip, then dropped her plate.  She was a close friend of your sister.  Seeing you, she’d seen your father.  “You look just like him,” she said.  You answered with one word, the Hebrew word meaning let it be so.

It is good to be able to visit 42nd Street.

It is good to see relatives in the mirror.

It is good to have them seen in you.

At the wedding of your youngest niece, Marianne, to Noriasu, there was a long speech delivered in Japanese from one of Nori’s relatives.  As droned along, your father, growing hungry for lunch, was heard to mutter, “How do you say enough in Japanese?”

You’re so like him, Marianne told you at dinner this past Thanksgiving.

“How do you say enough in Yiddish?”  Nori asked.

This grand, roaring father, with whom you attended hundreds of baseball games, merely for the pleasure of his company, comes to you with some regularity in your dreams.  “Let’s eat,” he’ll say.  Or, sometimes, he’ll lapse into Italian.  “Cuand arrive, scrive.”  When you get there, write.

Annie, your mother.  Jake, your father.  Max and Becky.  Grandma Lizzie, and Grandpa Sam.  Pennee, your sister, who made you take a bath and change into your good clothes for a special treat which was taking you to the Providence library and getting you your first library card.  You see them from time to time when you drive past parks where the smoke rises from the charcoal grilles and the laughter seems to radiate from the midst of a large group, congregated about a picnic table.


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