Thursday, January 1, 2015

"Come Again Another Day" by Judith Washington - 2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist 

Come Again Another Day
Judith Washington

His name was David, like the ancient Israelite king.  Our undying love lasted three quarters of a lifetime --‘till we’d both turned five.  Five was old enough for my father to entrust me with his special lead pencil, the one with four retractable colors.  I drew many shaky hearts on scrap paper, writing Judy +David inside.  Sometimes I pierced them with an arrow. A black and white snapshot of us taken in my living room in 1945 when we were three shows me planting a tender kiss on David’s broad, smooth forehead while I laced his chubby fingers in mine.
Since the turn of the 20th century, New York City had become home to the largest urban concentration of Jews in history.  By 1940, the greatest number resided in the borough of Brooklyn.   I was one of these 857,000 souls.  By 1940, my grandparents and great grandparents, all of whom had arrived in New York by 1907, had put down firm roots. They’d brought other family members from Eastern Europe and they had produced offspring.  Our extended family included immigrants and the American-born,  grandparents, great-grandparents,  aunts, uncles and older cousins, all living but a short subway ride apart, all devoted to our personal mass transit system.  If, on any given morning, an adult made the briefest of telephone calls to another relative for the purpose of  sharing the smallest scrap of news, by early afternoon the information, along with a growing commentary, had quickly permeated this network.

Yet, despite these intricate and intimate connections there remained a small but vacant space in my life:  I was an only child.  This hole was filled when the Schwartz family moved into the same five story apartment building on East 18th Street where my parents and I resided.  Their son David was just my age, and like me, he was a singleton.  Now I had someone to run and giggle with, someone with whom to play the games I endlessly invented. David was sweet and amiable, with a loveable half-smile.  I would whisper my three year old secrets in his ear and I liked to run my fingers through his straight, sandy hair.  When I hugged David, a tentative smile lit his pale, placid face.

It was necessary to exercise extreme caution playing inside our respective three and half room apartments—don’t bump into furniture, don’t make noise, and never, ever eat in the living room.  David’s parents, like mine, were first generation American Jews, but they were orthodox.  The ponderous mahogany furniture  that filled their dark rooms breathed a thick air of gloom.  David’s mother, Teresa, was terse and stern; his father, a morose man whose name I never learned, a person we all avoided.

Our home was sunny and had a bouncy feel. My quietly cheerful father always spoke gently to children.  I liked to watch my mother every Friday afternoon when she placed a 78 record on our Victrola and a lively fox-trot, samba, or rumba filled our living room.  She would drop a soft cloth on the ground and place both her bare feet, size five and half, on it, then purposefully shimmy her way across the room in rhythm, around and around every inch of the spotless, newly waxed parquet wood squares until the whole floor gleamed. At the end, always a smile of satisfaction: she was ready for the weekend.

Teresa’s floors were dull.  But she lit candles every Friday at sunset to welcome the Sabbath bride.  I was fascinated by these flickering lights.  One evening, soon after she finished the candle lighting ceremony and disappeared into her kitchen, on impulse I blew them out. When Teresa emerged her thin lips tightened and she glared at me, not uttering a word.  After that, we had to play in my house. It was just as well.

As soon as David and I reached four we were permitted to play outside in an area directly in front of the living room window our fifth floor apartment faced, a window from which my mother would periodically check, calling us in for lunch at noon and dinner at five.  For snowy winter days, our mothers bundled us up and sent us forth.  But long, rainy days forced us to remain indoors,  and so my mother instructed us to recite: “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day, Judy and David want to play!” and to repeat this at least five times.  Mommy often joined in, assuring us our chanting was sure to bring a brighter, adventure-filled tomorrow. Most of the time it worked. 

Living in the moment as children do, I assumed these satisfying affairs and my companionship with David would never change. When I reached five years and two months, my baby brother was born. Although at first my mother would not let me touch him as he lay in his humungous crib, or when she took him outdoors each day in an equally large carriage that took up half the elevator, I knew once Eddie got a little bigger we, too, would become fast friends.  David and I would share our vast store of knowledge with him, and we would all have so much fun together.

One June day next year the Cohen family moved into an apartment on the ground floor:  Dr. Cohen, his wife, Mrs. Cohen, and their six year old daughter Frances.  Because there was no need to use the creaky, unreliable elevator the ground level apartments were the most desirable.  The building buzzed with this sudden honor.  Having a doctor living among us added luster to our own ordinary lives.  And not a dentist, a real doctor.  In case anyone had missed out on either this information or the rank doctorhood bestowed upon her entire family, Mrs. Cohen decorated their apartment lavishly.

Frances, David and I quickly evolved into a triumvirate. There we were.  David, in baggy
trousers that somehow resembled the shapeless dresses his drab mother wore, remained
slow moving and deliberate as always.  I was still chatty and lively.  My mother, who
prided herself on style, dressed me impeccably.  She washed and pressed my
clothes nightly, and groomed my unruly curls each morning before carefully placing a
matching, starched and ironed ribbon in my hair.  The new ingredient was Frances, two
inches taller than David and me, who were of equal height. She was poised, haughty, with a wardrobe that said “wealth. 

It did not take long for Frances to take over.  She dictated what games we would play and when, as if she were Queen Frances, with David and I her loyal subjects.  I don’t remember the exact moment it became clear to me this was the new dynamic, or when Frances first insisted we play in her apartment instead of mine, nor how soon after she began  taunting me with  remarks like  Judy! Don’t be such a baby!” To my surprise, David remained silent.

Wasn’t name-calling forbidden in his house?  It was in mine.  And didn’t best friends always stick up for each other, like family?  Apparently not.  I returned, to endure yet another day of ridicule.  By the following week David was agreeing with Francis, nodding his head and saying, “That’s right!” when she told me to just sit down and watch the game. The beginnings of a smirk replaced David’s customary smile.

 I could not understand how this could be. David seemed mesmerized by Frances.  But then again he had seemed mesmerized with me. I was forced to consider the possibility that David had never really returned my devotion.  I promised myself Francis would never make me cry and she didn’t.  But I kept coming back; David was not only my best friend, he was the only one, and for this I loved him steadfastly.

Nothing stays the same. It was inevitable, and the middle of a hot August day in 1947,
when the Cohens became the first family in the building to purchase a TV.  The
awestruck dwellers of 1342 East 18th Street (between Avenues M and N) quickly spread
this news throughout the building.  Within a week, Mrs. Cohen had issued invitations to all us children: come and watch TV next Sunday.

Stepping over that threshold, I saw the Cohen living room transformed into a private movie theater.  Strategically placed fans hummed softly, expertly cooling the area. Matching folding chairs were lined up three rows deep facing the television. Clearly, some other, favored children from the adjoining apartment house had been invited, because I didn’t know most of those assembled.  I counted 22. Mrs. Cohen asked me to join the others and take a seat. 

The odor of buttered popcorn filled the room as Mrs. Cohen served each child our portion on individual paper plates, along with dainty Dixie cups filled with grape juice.  I sampled the sweet liquid with the tip of my tongue.  It brought to mind the Passover Seder, that long ceremony, much of it in Hebrew.  Here was the same deep purple grape juice we children drank in lieu of the mandatory, symbolic four cups of Manischewitz extra-sweet-wine for adults.

In only a few moments, my musings were interrupted by Mrs. Cohen’s efficient movements as she collected empty paper products.   She drew her elegant, rose-colored drapes to darken the room.

 The  TV was housed in a large imposing box like mahogany cabinet.  In 1947, there were four existing TV channels. Each had limited programming, and “test patterns”  filled TV screens for many hours. The group sat facing the 12 inch screen for a full 15 minutes, silent, poised, staring silently at the NBC logo. 

We fortunate few were about to see one of the three children’s programs. Finally, it was time.  Marching band music played the Star Spangled Banner while we viewed the American flag.  It stood alone atop a tall pole in a vast green field of perfectly mown grass, undulating in the breeze of a spring day. “Stand up, children!” Mrs. Cohen ordered.  “It’s time to salute the flag.” 

I remained rooted to my chair.  I’d come to understand that people who fiercely demanded such ritual allegiance, who worshipped the American nation above all others were the same people who disliked short, olive complected immigrants like my grandparents.  The “foreigners” were instantly identifiable by their funny accents, outdated clothing and antiquated ways.  If these foreigners voiced any disagreement with anything the patriots said or did there was always the same rejoinder:  “If you don’t like America, go back where you came from!”  Frances’ parents, like my own, were only first generation Americans.

“Stand up, Judy!” Mrs. Cohen repeated sharply.  I looked around and saw I was the only
one still seated.  “Anyone who doesn’t salute the flag can’t watch television here,” she continued.   My fierce allegiance to family was at stake, and, pitted against my desire to fit in, it didn’t stand a chance.  By nature an obedient child, I had never in my five years  openly defied authority.  But at this crossroads, loyalty and the urge to stand firm for what I knew was right triumphed over all my insecurities.  I refused.

As Mrs. Cohen and 21 children solemnly placed hands over hearts in preparation for the pledge, I swiftly stood up from my back row seat, did a sharp about face and swooped out the door, walked swiftly through the sickly green hallway and ran up the four flights of stairs to the refuge of my own apartment.

From that point forward David and I became nodding acquaintances.  It was as if our love affair had never happened and our lives had never been entwined.  What became of him I don’t know.  Five years later my parents joined the mass Jewish migration from the concrete streets of Brooklyn to the manicured lawns of affluent Long Island suburbia. It wasn’t easy for me to cross over a sea of Frances Cohens into adolescence and beyond.   By then I had became more cautious in matters of the heart and was no longer certain that the promised land lay within my reach.  Still, irresistibly, after 11 long years I opened my eyes wide and looking high into the Brooklyn skies once again embraced optimism.

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