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National Indie Excellence Book Award 2012 for “This Mobius Strip of Ifs”
The first book by Mathias B. Freese that I reviewed was last year, it too, like this one, was short stories. So, naturally, I approached this latest book with a certain set of preconceived notions about his style of writing and the overall content. It was however, quite a different experience. Freese is a gifted writer. I say this because I have read quite a few books about the holocaust and this has such a different approach to the whole issue. Each story involves a folk tale, or a fable, from Jewish folklore. And creatures, both good and bad, come alive to take the characters of the book through bizarre journeys.
One of the stories that touched me most was one that involved a ‘golem’ . “In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated anthropomorphic being, magically created entirely from inanimate matter.” Mothers tell children stories of the golem as a creature that must be summoned when no hope remains and the world is dark. A Jew who is escaping from a camp has the golem in his head and conversations follow. The story is bone-chilling. I have always marvelled at the cruelty of man to man but never have I come across such raw rendering of emotions. Even the story about Hitler’s relationship with Eva seems true.
Needless to say, it is a most depressing read. Do approach with caution. This book affected me almost as much as Anne Frank’s work, and that is the highest praise I can give it.
I TRULY LAMENT
5.0 out of 5 stars
`When you’re dead, Ezra, I’ll tenderly throw you into the pit and say a few words over you.’, October 18, 2014
This review is from: I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust (Paperback)
Mathias B. Freese is a writer, teacher, and psychotherapist. His recent collection of essays, “This Mobius Strip of Ifs,” was the winner of the National Indie Excellence Book Award of 2012 in general nonfiction and a 2012 Global Ebook Award finalist. His “I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust” was one of three finalists chosen in the 2012 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest out of 424 submissions.
Were Mathias B. Freese not such a gifted writer this book might become overbearing after a few stories. But the compassion and the ability to stand in the vantage of the speakers recalling the Holocaust is truly a profoundly moving experience. These stories ache and peel back the yellowing seal of time that disuse allows to settle over unrepeated truths and places us in the concentration camps, living (or surviving or enduring or not) along side fellow `detainees’. Freese makes us feel, smell, cringe, and cry as these arias are sung from the stage of hate created during WW II.
It is only by being placed there via the time capsule Freese provides that reminds us of the horror of this hideous blight on the face of humanity. Only then can we ever avoid its recurrence – or be more objective as we see the genocide and human trafficking and other brutalities that somehow become hidden in our newspapers. This is a book that should be in the hands of everyone, in all countries, of all beliefs, of all living survivors from that time, with the plea this never happens again. Grady Harp, October 14
For Immediate Release
Contact: Mathias B. Freese
1786 Tanner Circle, Henderson, NV 89012
I Truly Lament – Working through the Holocaust by Mathias B. Freese
“Weirdly wonderful” short story collection explores the Holocaust from diverse perspectives in literary styles ranging from gothic and romantic to phantasmagoric
Acclaimed author Mathias B. Freese writes from the fundamental understanding that human beings are much less than we generally give them credit for. Further, he believes that the human species is wildly damaged, for only a damaged species could have committed the Holocaust.
With this principle in place, Freese, renowned for his award-winning novel The i Tetralogy, publishes a new collection of short stories, I Truly Lament – Working through the Holocaust.
The twenty-seven stories in this collection include inmates in death camps, survivors of these camps, disenchanted Golems complaining about their designated rounds, modern Holocaust deniers and their ravings, collectors of Hitler curiosa (only recently, a few linens from Hitler’s bedroom suite went up for sale!), an imagined interview with Eva Braun during her last days in the Berlin bunker, a Nazi camp doctor who subtly denies his complicity, the love story of a Hungarian cantor, and many more.
Applying differing points of view, in styles ranging from gothic to romantic to phantasmagoric, Freese leads readers to what might be called his own final conclusion – that we will never be done with the Holocaust; we will never work it through.
Critic Duff Brenna, professor emeritus at CSU San Marcos, calls the collection “a monstrous achievement” and likens Freese to a “modern-day Melville wandering those same deserts of discontent, searching for answers to unsolvable questions.”
From out of 424 manuscripts, I Truly Lament – Working through the Holocaust was chosen as one of three finalists in the 2012 Leapfrog Fiction Contest.
The author comments, “In my novel The i Tetralogy, considered by some critics an important contribution to Holocaust literature as well as a work of ‘undying artistic integrity’ (Arizona Daily Sun), I could not imagine it ‘all.’
Endorsement: “‘Freese says that ‘memory must metabolize [the Holocaust] endlessly,’ and his book certainly turns hell into harsh nourishment: keeps us alert, sharpens our nerves and outrage, forbids complacent sleep so the historical horror can’t be glossed over as mere nightmare. The Holocaust wasn’t a dream or even a madness. It was a lucid, non-anomalous act that is ever-present in rational Man. In the face of this fact, Freese never pulls punches. Rather, his deft, brutal, and insightful words punch and punch until dreams’ respite are no longer an option and insanity isn’t an excuse.” ~ David Herrle, author of Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy
I Truly Lament – Working through the Holocaust by Mathias B. Freese; Wheatmark; Fiction; Soft Cover 978-1-62787-161-7 $12.95
Availability: amazon.com, wheatmark.com, email@example.com
Author: Mathias B. Freese is a writer, teacher, and psychotherapist. His recent collection of essays, This Möbius Strip of Ifs, was the winner of the National Indie Excellence Book Award of 2012 in general nonfiction and a 2012 Global eBook Award finalist. He is also the author of The i Tetralogy and Down to a Sunless Sea.
I Truly Lament—Working Through the Holocaust is a varied collection of stories: inmates in death camps; survivors of these camps; disenchanted Golems complaining about their designated rounds; Holocaust deniers and their ravings; collectors of Hitler curiosa (only recently a few linens from Hitler’s bedroom suite went up for sale!); an imagined interview with Eva Braun during her last days in the Berlin bunker; a Nazi camp doctor subtly denying his complicity; and the love story of a Hungarian cantor, among others.
“Freese says that ‘memory must metabolize [the Holocaust] endlessly,’ and his book certainly turns hell into harsh nourishment: keeps us alert, sharpens our nerves and outrage, forbids complacent sleep so the historical horror can’t be glossed over as mere nightmare. The Holocaust wasn’t a dream or even a madness. It was a lucid, non-anomalous act that is ever-present in rational Man. In the face of this fact Freese never pulls punches. Rather, his deft, brutal, and insightful words punch and punch until dreams’ respite are no longer an option and insanity isn’t an excuse.”
—David Herrle, Author of Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy
“… Freese’s haunting lament might best be explained (at least to me) by something Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about Herman Melville’s endless search for answers to questions that perplexed him all his adult life. Melville was incessantly obsessed with what one might call the why of it all—life, death, metaphysical mysteries. Similar to Freese, Melville was repeatedly afflicted with a dark and depressive state of mind.”
—Duff Brenna, Professor Emeritus CSU San Marcos
Available through: http://www.wheatmark.com/catalog/entry/I-Truly-Lament
“Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break! — Nikos Kazantzakis
I was a quiet child, passive, inoffensive, in no way troublesome, able to be left alone for hours, good, slightly curious, reasonably bright – unloved and untouched. No hand held me, no embrace told me I was unique, dearly desired and wanted. So, I unwittingly and unknowingly embraced myself. Like the sewers of Paris, I opened wide my eyes to the waters above; they entered my grates, became torrents and fled like rivers beneath the city of lights. “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree. . .” Subterranean, I dwelt in Nod, east of Eden.
A catalogue of what children are denied, what is unavailable to them might serve a cautionary note.
Charlotte Russe, a confectioner’s delight of angel food cake topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry doused in sulfites, all tornadoed into an opened cardboard contrivance with an inner oval insert to hold the cake itself and a scalloped edge to serve as a diadem for the pile of schlag swirled on top. In the Fifties they were often arranged in a glass-tiered etagere at the corner candy store and the owner delivered to each eager child the Russe with a degree of care and mock awe.
Orange crates with a 2×3 inch wide sturdy end pieces, the decals were detritus then, and now collectibles (“Indian River”) — the side slats were carefully pried away, held in place by brads on each end. With this material innovation began. Two slats nailed together into a wider brace stock formed a rifle and affixed with a whittled bayonet. The remaining square pieces were cut and made into a cardboard gun. So in hand one had a wooden letter L, a nail affixed beneath the long barrel, an inch or so from the tip, the held the rubber band that stretched from beneath to over and down the barrel’s snout where it grabbed onto a notch. Cardboard squares, 1” x 1” were cut out from one’s father’s shirts; they came from the cleaners with cardboard in those days. Children were environmentalists.
Glass straws bought at the nearest drugstore that still displayed apothecary jars filled with blue and red waters, served as street assault weapons, for handful of dusty barley or rice in one’s mouth fed its opening and one spent late afternoons spitting these pellets at one’s friends. Water guns at the time were in one color, like Ford’s Model T; it was a black, 45mm replica and it leaked eventually and it did not shoot too far; it was for close encounters but it was not menacing. At the time no one feared it might be mistaken for the real thing.
Definitely missed are the stolidly dramatic cars, Studebaker, Kaiser-Frazer, Packard, Hudson, for their designs allowed one to leap back and sit upon their sides next to the hood, and one was not a youngster until an owner called, “Hey, kid, get off my car!” Oh, the “mischief.” And the only stalwart polish was Simoniz, swirls of mist dewy circles on the car as one waited until it turn slightly milked and then buffed it out – and always in the shade, the place where men tooled with the carburetor.
Marshmallow chocolate covered twists were two cents apiece, and the candy store owner dug deep into the ice cream chest below the soda fountain to pull out these “truffles,” recalcitrant little creatures so delectable to the taste; much the same for a frozen Milky Way, sold to you on Brighton and Coney Island beaches by a white suited, white safari-hatted young man schlepping a white box laced in khaki army belts as grips. Across Saharan sands, he lugged this white treasure trove.
As a child a beanie was essential and was constructed from the crown of a man’s hat, often dad’s. The brim was cut away, and edge turned up and scalloped – charms, pins, added to it. Hats? What are hats? They are the controller of men’s hands and a source of civility and politeness. They are the cowboy’s plumed helmet, his de Bergerac. Hats, then, were excuses to leave and reminders to go. They slept on beds.
What was an aunt if not a hat with a veil, perhaps black or white gloves – for every day wear; perhaps rouge, ah, yes, rouge. And what was folded tissue if not a blotter for thickly lipsticked lips.
I was texture and I was within a specified context.
An emasculated coat hanger left a metal Y. A thick rubber band tied to the end posts and then fed through the cushion of a nylon backing – nylons, seams, fixing seams, garter belts: oh, lust. The sling was fed with unripe berries from local street trees, city child as migrant worker, agricultural reaper.
Sleds were not oval or ellipsoid nor of plastic and composite but linear scarps, with metal runners, “American Flyers” – Rosebuds! – that one ran with and flopped upon snow – belly-whopping. Now one circles down a hill in a saucer as if in orbit, whereas before one crossed the continental divide, conquered a frontier.
Ice cream cones were 9 cents and came with a choice: spun sugar cones – too fragile, or the spiraled wafer funnel cones, Wicked Witch of the West hats. And the milk and cream content were biblically fatted. An occasional choice was the Mello-Roll, a cylinder of ice cream covered with paper than you unrolled and placed into a cone shaped like a sugar mallet, a diy treat.
Of all the Rosebuds of my childhoods, the blue Swiss phonograph my father brought home from a pawnshop in which he worked, gripped my fascination, for it was extremely compact, each black and gun-metal blue piece fit exquisitely – and beautifully – into its cramped confines, much like a trusted jack, each section in its proper position – and tightly aligned – in the trunk. The needle was thick, a stereophile’s conniption; however, it was on this well-tooled machine that I first heard Bozo the Clown and samplers from a series of 45 discs, if memory serves me right, of classical music. Tschaikovsky and Grieg still stay in mind. Alas, time has stolen this machine away.
I remember W.W. II fighter model airplane kits, balsa wood models that required sanding of the core fuselage, with decals, that could be assembled to one’s satisfaction if you did not rush, in a day or two, and then painted with gray “dope.” They taught us delay. The more advanced modeler worked with kits that came in a kind of spaghetti box. When opened dozens of long, stiff sticks tumbled out, skeletal bones of the plane to be, a conclave of stilt walkers. Additionally, a thin balsa sheet was enclosed, all the individual parts highlighted, from which with either a razor blade or an X-acto blade, one excised the struts, what-have-you, that made up the interior of the fuselage and wings. Gossamer tissue paper was included as well, to be used for the craft’s skin and that was a dicey effort to complete. It was an exciting and exacting project, much over my head, and only the patient youngster, the advanced obsessive, could put it together with finesse. The room would reek from “dope,” an unknown high of the time.
I would purchase a small tube of a black gooey substance with the feel of eely gum to; malleable, it came with a short plastic straw. I formed a round black pearl about one tip of the straw. I shaped and molded it, so when I blew into the tube – with gusto – a large balloon shape slowly emerged, often in wild, bulbous and Zeppelin-like figurations. I broke it off from the straw, quickly sealed the balloon by crimping it. It had heft and feel to it, this airy cherub and those that followed in quick succession. And how did I know then that the amount of either in this “toy” was enough to build a stairway to heaven.
At times I read thick, square fat little books with vellum-like pages, Tom Mix and Tarzan adventures, very much collectables now. . .or I “glued” paper “cockamamies” on my inner wrists, moist tattoos of all kinds – flags, puppies, stars, Mickey Mouse. Crackerjacks, then, as an aside, had metal, not plastic, gifts in their boxes, which took strong teeth to open – as if the seal was purposely glued shut tight to frustrate the young child: to create necessary delay before the reward within. As I think back perhaps the Fifties were a decade of delay.
Tinkertoys (is there a child today who is allowed to “tinker”?) came in a long tube, the Legos of the time, consisting of dowels and round wooden orbs, like space stations awaiting dockings. They entertained our fancy, for they required quirky constructional dreams in addition t coordination and experimentation. The one advantage, mild at that, over Erector sets, was they required screws, bolts and small wrenches. Tinkertoys was hands on. The found beach seashell brought to one’s ear and for a significant while, held interest – I was told they contained the sea’s crashing and I bought into the myth; better the myth than the scientific reason for spurring one’s imagination. Radio, not TV, held sway; imagination and creation as opposed to stupor and soporific moments. Analogue allowed the young child to tinker, turn a dial, sand a fuselage, putting a curve on a rubber ball, the immortal and ubiquitous Spaldeen.
The intimacy of my childhood was not with significant others, unfortunately. The childlike flora and fauna of my existence provided that. One’s “attention span” was not a moment or a span – it had breadth and gravity; mental bridges crossed from one point to another. And there were sufficient truss work to hold an idea in place and for some duration. I became Brooklyn Bridge.
A simple box camera, like Kodak’s Hawkeye, for one, could produce on large 626 (?) film, black and white shiny images with scalloped edges the chiaroscuro world of the post-war 40s and early 50s, film noir from a box, no less. Simpler pleasures were savored innocently, incorporatively, without knowing that. We acquired the honorable beauty of delay and frustration – that gratification meant so much more after an arduous journey (we were child analysts in training).
It was a time and a moment in which life reduced stress – at least for this child, and shaped the hours, in which seasons were ineluctable events and, like ocean waves, swept me into the deeper waters of childhood, the deep end.
One toy, one creative toy, my Uncle Seymour and Aunt Ruthie gifted me with was composed of a number of rubber molds, of people, clowns and animals – I remember not, in which I poured plaster-of-Paris (truly interactive). Placing the filled mold into a glass, its rubbery flanges overlapping and grasping the tumbler’s rim, it was cautiously placed into a refrigerator to harden over night – and then I had to wait.
Like Jello, I would test its surface waters with a finger tip, see if it was still liquid or if it had gone beyond gel to hard. To remove the rubber from the encased plaster led to errors and breakage, but finally, with patience, the statuary revealed itself and with the water colors that came with the kit, I began to color them, much like the Greeks who brashly poly chromed their marbles.
This is not nostalgia solely, although the first scent of this essence may strike you in that way. Rather, it is the latent configuring in all this that forms the human spirit to be. It is a child’s time, my time, a special elasticity over the years that provides the security of defined boundaries, outer perimeters from which one enters the forest primeval to forage and where the bravest of souls moves out from there to discover a clearing, or to ascend a rise – to master the terrain and one’s self. I would have to wait until the Sixties. At this moment all I can say is Ecce Homo who was this child.
It is to grow up with experience kneading you, not pushing or hurrying, just kneading you: preparing the flour that will rise like dough into bread, grain into the staff of life. We are all flour.
As I am much closer to my end than my beginning, I see the past clearer, apparently a consequence of aging. Short bursts of revelatory matter come to me – like quarks appearing on negatives, an indirect sighting, never seen eye to eye or in “reality,” but there, nevertheless.
I see the child I was that with the proper encouragement might have become the artist, the musician or the actor. I see the pip that grew into no tree, but only a rooting spring on a tree’s knot. I see the unbearable sadness of a will that might have soared. And, in a twist of fate, I became a scribbler, a writer of signs and symbols, runes. How odd. After all, to record is a surrogate living.
. . .
Dear Nikos: I know.
The bow is bent, the drawn cord attached, the tension taut. The pull is made, fingers and string brought close to the ear. The bow arced. And the quiver is empty, spent. To have an arrow to shoot, to expend oneself in thrust, in distance, to dynamically penetrate time and self and the world, has been sadly deferred.
And so I record, for each word mobilizes another part of myself, as I speed straight and true away into life ahead.
Each one of us is a repository. Like flypaper, time and its detritus clings to us, often unknown except at a subliminal level. Allow me to troll the lake of my mind and give evidence of that gone except in mind. I recall adults telling us “Hey, kids get off my fender.” We no longer have cars with bulbous fenders, the ones we’d sit upon and talk to one another. Recently I went to Costco to buy 35mm film and the clerk had to redirect us to a nether shelf with a few boxes. Digital has been so completely successful that now I must seek out film like a hunter. Words have left the language — stoopball; potsy; “Chinese” boxball; boxball itself; Spaldeen; punchball; Fleer’s bubble gum; Studebaker; Hudson; Nash Metropolitan; Henry K; Kaiser-Frazer; Packard; dungarees, et al.
The movies of my children, late 40s through the 50s, are now either classics or forgotten nitrates resurrected, thank god, by DVDs. I grew up on Lamarr, Mature, Michael Rennie, George Sanders, Elizabeth Taylor, Hopalong Cassidy, Sidney Toler as Mr. Chan, Welles, Tyrone Power and Jack Hawkins, Sabu, Conrad Veidt, Mantan Moreland, Abbott and Costello, Bette Davis, Alan Ladd, Martin & Lewis, Donald O’Connor, Esther Williams, James Baskett (Song of the South), Novak, Pleshette, Stewart, Natalie Wood, Eva Marie Saint, Brando, Jean Simmons, Stewart Granger, not to mention all the films I caught on TV — Flash Gordon serials with Buster Crabbe; Hopalong Cassidy movies with William Boyd and the B oaters that starred Ken and Kermit Maynard, Tex Ritter, Autry and Rogers, Bob Steele, Tim Tyler, Buck Jones, McCoy, and early Wayne westerns. Movie candies were of the time, Jujy Fruits, Non-Pareils, Bon Bons, Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy, JuJubes and Dots.
I walk around with all this sweet and cloying if not sentimental stuff in me. It is all context, that’s about it. We each grow different kinds of feathers at different times in our lives. Early readings stay with us and we can recall where and when we read a particularly eventful book. We smile inwardly at our childhood environments and we are often touched. When I was a cab driver back in 1969 -1972 in New York, I eventually mastered the ins and outs of Central Park and the oddly S shaped Broadway as well as the cross streets. Similarly as a child I learned the neighborhood like the proverbial back of my hand. I could go back now and within a few minutes know my way about although new homes have filled in the “lots” we used to play in and roast “mickies,” potatoes, in the cold of February. I was connected, like a farmer, to the “soil” of this urban world. I knew when it was the season to play two-hand touch football, marbles, to fly kites, to make orange crate box scooters; to pluck berries from trees to use as ammo in our slingshots made from wire hangars and the back of mom’s nylons. We plundered the neighborhood of riches, like migrant workers cherrypicking the best of the fruit. We were earnest scavengers too busy and intent on doing this than to ever really cause mischief. We had purpose and there was meaning in play. We were always outside and hated to come in which apparently is the opposite of today in which the computer glues kids to the monitor.
Like all generations, it was the best and worst of times, and what we grew up with we are favorable to and give meaning to in our memories and our nostalgia. As I grow older I often return to those days of radio listening — Tom Mix, The Lone Ranger, Superman, Inner Sanctum –of parents moving about in memory, of school and the street. Quite normal to return to connection and relationship. I felt then that I was a nut within a snug shell, comforting and secure. Out of this nexus all my writing flows. I really believe what other writers have said is that we tell one story and we repeat that story in many variations throughout our lives. I will try to pause here and see the unfathomable which is what song I needed sung. I believe that I was not registered by my parents. I was not “felt” by them so that I grew up thinking that this is the way in this home and probably in other homes. Centuries later in terms of psychic time a close friend and brilliant therapist told me that I needed to be “felt.” Yes, I needed to be felt. The sadness in my life is the knowledge that if encouraged, if nourished I would have placed my palms upon the heavens. Since that was not forthcoming all of my life has been my self-parenting myself — but that is what is. I have made my “peace” with that but that is a self-lie I tell myself to get on with life. When I die all my lies and all my myths die with me. The realities go equally dead as well, for what person or persons can read the sorrows of another.
In the summer of ’69 I was driving a cab in Manhattan, from about 6 pm to about 4 in the morning. I averaged about 200 miles in a shift, about the distance from Queens to Woodstock. Often my right knee would ache from the stop and go traffic of the city. Few new Yorkers knew that there was continual “warfare” between the city busses and the cabbies, blocking one another, cutting across. The origin of that I did not know until I became enmeshed in the crossfire. It was a “secret” like bus drivers hitting their air brakes, snort snort, if a big assed or big titted woman walked in front of them. It took me some time to realize what that was about. The women, I believe, for the most part, were oblivious to the mechanical leering.
At night the city is blasted by glaring neon and the air is congested with soot, boiled over, like dry espresso, bitter to the smell. When early dawn hit during the summer and I went back to Queens over the Williamsburg Bridge, I felt refreshed in my Humvee, for driving a cab in the city is like driving in Iraq during hostilities. I was dressed simply every night, jeans, a t-shirt, sneakers and next to my side upfront was a cigar box to hold change and my coin changer as well. I relied on a map book which gave all the avenues and exits on and ramps off the Eastside and Westside highways; I counted on my little blue Baedecker to get across the transverses in Central Park, west side to east side, visa versa. If you missed a transverse, you headed uptown and that meant Harlem – and fear to the passengers. In London I’ve been informed that a cab driver is a lifelong occupation and one must pass rigorous tests to be given a license. In New York, after studying a while, I took a very simple test/quiz mostly about major avenues and streets and stations, such as Grand Central and Pennsylvania Station. Some cabbies went in on a mortgage and bought a medallion which was affixed to the hood. A medallion might guarantee you a business, although you always ran the risk of being held up, which I was, gun pointed to the back of my head. I recall in the Fifties it was a relatively safe business to own a cab, but that had changed by the time I began driving.
Once my cab was hit from behind and the woman passenger had her face and especially chin thrown against the passenger side. I called, quite upset, to relate the details to the dispatcher (a lower form of Danny DeVito in “Taxi”) and a possible injury to the woman, and the dispatcher’s first words to me were, “Is the cab all right?” After that, I knew my place in the pecking order. I was in a post-apocalyptic world.
I drove a pattern like most cabbies. I chose a safe one, the upper east or west side. I’d go down five or ten blocks, turn right or left, and go uptown, so that I was doing a rectangular or square grid. At times I’d pick up a fare that wanted to go to LaGuardia or Kennedy which was a break from the routine. The cabbie is always looking for a return fare back to the city and sometimes I would get that. No one wanted to be pulled into Brooklyn. I didn’t mind Queens because it was my hunting ground. If I had to piss that could be handled well, but if a cabbie had to shit, that was another story as New York had scarce facilities – still does! — for that and if you found one, it was much like the men’s room in a one pump Texaco station on Route 66. Often I would just scoot over the Williamsburg Bridge to my apartment and relieve myself in familiar and hygienic surroundings.
As a cab driver there is much freedom. If you drove five hours instead of ten, if you took off time to see a movie, some did, or ate out for an hour or two, this was fine with the dispatcher as long as you brought in what was considered a night’s “take” in the cab. Serendipitously I learned how to master the streets and avenues of New York, such stuff as Broadway being an “S” shaped street and one you simply had to master and the other being, for example, Fifth Avenue. All streets East of Fifth Avenue were counted in one way, all streets west of Fifth ran another way. With that in mind and on foot or in a cab, any address given you by a fare could be figured out, long before the GPS. Until this day when I visit the city I get a kick out of my mastery of the streets, Minetta Lane, being the smallest street in all of Manhattan, in case you like such trivia. As to the subway system, that is much too arcane for me.
One muggy night, all windows opened, I don’t think I had air conditioning at that time, in August, I was cruising my grid, which at that time began at Central Park South with the famed Plaza Hotel at a corner. On 59th Street the famed Ruebens restaurant was situated and the creator of the Reuben sandwich, which is to die for. Uptown avenues had several Greek restaurants of renown. It was here that I picked up the “Princess.” I didn’t realize it at the time but she had been drinking and was somewhat tipsy. I believe I opened the door for her, given her condition, and she fell into the back seat, and the back seat in the old Checker cabs was really big, often with two additional seats that had to be pulled down to occupy. Like all cabbies, we wanted to get the fare in and the fare out as soon as possible; time was crucial to make a night’s living.
When I asked her to tell me where she wanted to be dropped off, she replied, ”Milch. I vant milch.” I knew then it was not going to be an easy fare – or night. And what was more disturbing was that the “princess” wanted “milch” from a Greek restaurant. And so I began to cruise for Greek restaurants; I would double park and go in and often they didn’t have milk. Whatever I recall from this adventure was that three restaurants in a row were out of cow juice. And when I reported this to her she became slightly surly and expressed her European annoyance at my failure to find her milk. I was dealing with resistance, she just wouldn’t get out of the cab.
So with my Greek princess in the back I just drove around until she made up her mind as what she wanted to do next. I was fit to be tied. Clearly she didn’t want to get out of the cab, and she reminded me of a Gatsby-esque floozy on a tear. At last, probably out of some sense and sensibility, she asked me to drive over to Reubens, a few blocks off. As I came to the restaurant and parked, she leaned over to talk to me. “I am sorry for all this. Let me treat you to a meal.” For some reason which was later justified, I felt her to be a sad woman.
“You don’t have to do that, just pay the fare.”
“But I insist. I took you away from your job.”
I relented. I double-parked the car and was wearing by now a sweat-ridden t-shirt and jeans that felt like humid clouds about my legs. When she stepped out of the cab, I had my first real look at her, and it was striking. She was blond and bore an uncanny resemblance to Melina Mercouri. Even standing still, she had a flamboyance to her, a flair. Dressed in a lovely silken dress, a kind of European sari if you will, in the early light of city’s dawn it glistened, and I thought of Gustav Klimt’s women.
So slob with coin changer on his belt and a Greek Princess went into Reuben’s. Two waiters with cloths draped over their arms stood there and I quickly observed how they thought they had sized us up, cab driver gigolo with naïve European woman. When we were seated they asked me what I wanted and since I was not eating well because of a lack of funds, I ordered a steak with a side. And it is here that the princess made a dramatic faux pas. Raising her hand and then the other she clapped both her hands as if a flamenco dancer and said very loudly, “Vaiter, I vant milch.”
I knew that was a majestic error in a Jewish restaurant and with these two Jewish waiters. Before my steak arrived, her milk arrived. It took everything not to break out laughing. Her milk was delivered in a small carton with a straw on a saucer. She did not know what was going on, but the fuck you was sublimely delivered by my kinsman.
Recalling our conversation it was mostly about her life with her husband who was some kind of aristocrat in Greece; that she was her on a trip by herself; that not everything was honky dory in their relationship; and above all, I could feel she was pained by being so alone and that I had served as her reluctant comrade for a crazy hour or so, about the amount of time it would take to get to the Tappan Bridge on the way to Woodstock. I do recall she wore on her finger a very large gemstone, opalescent, perhaps a moonstone set in rose gold. It bespoke of money and I have not seen its kind since. So I felt I was in the presence of considerable wealth. Returning to the cab I brought her back to the Plaza as the sun was coming up. She paid the fare, smiled at me and left the cab and walked through the brass doors of the side entrance to the Plaza.
Then she turned about, her dress in a swirl and walked back out again. I was watching all this and looked in the back seat in case she left her purse. She put her head to the window and softly said to me, “756.7856.”And she walked back.
When I have told this story to others, the follow up question is always asked: “Did you call her, the princess?”
I have no reply to give.
EXISTENCE IS A VAST BLUNDER. I’M OK WITH THAT.
I remember the fallen giant hulk of a tree from a hurricane and how we scampered and crawled across that druidic, earth-smelling thing before chainsaws were common. It was cut down by hand, and we had days to be with it. I recall how time was less hurried, how before TV I went to the library or busied myself with all kinds of things to do, like playing with a cap gun. I had no idea I was in a troubled family or that we were poor or lower (very lower) middle class. I lived an existence as a child, as I look back, that had no intentionality to it. What I am feeling is that what I knew of my limited world was fed to me in pieces, tesserae, haphazardly at that, and I had no inner apparatus to make feeling or sense of it. The Era of Benign Neglect was forming. Moreover, I feel I was left to my own devices and not engaged – all model making I did alone. And so years later, as I see it, self-sufficiency became a defense I devised to defend against my feeling of being bereft – as well as empty.
Even the cold moon is given the dignity of being bombarded by meteors. I cannot recall any craters made by mother and father. I grew up in a postwar period in which the shock of the death camps was not yet metabolized, nor the term “Holocaust” common to all. Similarly, I grew up stunned, without knowledge of this, that is, who I was. I was not acted upon. The lowly pebble in a stream experiences abrasions. I associate to those awful suburban homes of yore that have a fiberglass doe on their lawns or a few ducks, cut-out figures trying to give the illusion of forest creatures. I imagine myself cut-out from a child’s play book with a tab at the bottom of my feet. Press tab back and set on table. I was a “model” son. When you are numb, you create no fuss…much ado about nothing.
The thread that runs through all these shards is that essentially I was a kind of puppet essentially manipulated by older puppets, but puppets themselves. I cannot attribute malice to them, for they were so deadly conditioned as souls.
As a child I liked Al Jolson. Once I had “performed” in front of my grandmother, uncles and aunts, lip synching from the blue phonograph as Jolson warbled “April Showers.” I remember – at, 7, 8, or 9 – having my father blacken cork by burning it, then coloring my face so I’d sing in blackface – my relatives, on my father’s side had been grade C performers in Vaudeville. I was given a top hat and other paraphernalia and I went into the living room and did 15 minutes of Charlie McCarthy. I cringe at what I was subjected to. At the time it was very normal and I probably liked it. You should have seen my Gene Kelly. Whew!
It was as if a monstrous hand reached beneath my shirt and installed itself into my back and broke through the musculature until it grabbed my heart and associated organs and manipulated my being, as I moved arms, legs, mouth and torso at the behest of a violent intruder.
I am convinced that I was invaded before 5 or 6 so that before the end of the first decade of life I had been soul murdered.
I lived a marionette’s existence. Any time I felt, questioned or moved toward less numbness, my nose grew and my penis shortened.
I am well aware of how I was shut down and I am still working on moving out like a turtle, away from that horror to what Hemingway called, “A clean, well-lighted place.”
I ransack my past, especially my two summers in Woodstock, for each morsel of freedom attained. Woodstock, for me, is time. There is a compelling gravity to the past and it holds us in trance largely because it is known. I could return right now to the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, get off at Coney Island Avenue, go up to Brighton Beach Avenue, now Little Odessa, hang a left and then turn into Brighton 2nd Street. I’d walk this rectangular block 62 years ago that had an open lot cut into it, like the gap between two front teeth, now congested with solid brick and ill-humored homes. There were varied walkways, byways and lanes that I still vividly recall. I remember a fascinating pussy willow tree that heralded the beginning of a short lane. Decades ago I returned to browse through its memorabilia only to return home in a confused stated, as if I had not gone home again. I look back now and I am not sure if I actually made that journey, a kind of fugue state. I am feeling I would like to go home again, although the attraction is really to touch home base, secure the run.
All my past is like LePage’s glue, the rubber-nippled bottle of my childhood that I figuratively nursed on. The past is not necessarily good or safe, select an adjective, but it has familiarity, security and most of all, constancy. A rare quality of “thereness” suffuses the past, which is probably much more intense than the life we live now in the present. To secure constancy in the present is to be free, as Krishnamurti said, from the known.