Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"The Higher You Jump" By Ira Goldstein - 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

"The Higher You Jump"


Ira Goldstein

I drove half an hour from Staten Island, New York and landed somewhere in Eastern Europe.  Each time it shocks me. At around 50th st. and 14th Ave, in Brooklyn, I begin to spot men and boys in long black coats, knickers and black hats with wide brims. There are curls descending from each side of their hats. They all walk fast knowing exactly where they are going. Many are talking to themselves or to God, I suppose. Today I am visiting a Hasidic family to evaluate the gross motor skills of one of the children. I am a Physical Therapist.

I find the street and number and ring the bell. A small boy comes down a set of steep, rickety, wooden stairs and opens the door. He stares at me for a few seconds accommodating his eyes to the strange creature from the outside world. He then runs upstairs and a large man in the usual black and white attire invites me up. He calls his daughter Yikvah into the room. She is a one of ten children, the other nine remain in the kitchen eating squares of potato, onion and spices, fried to a crispy brown on two sides called "Potato Kugel" I recognize the look and the smell from my childhood apartment in the Bronx where everyone was Jewish and most were from Eastern Europe: The smells of Kugel, chicken soup, knadels and blintzes came through cracks in the walls and up through the dumbwaiter, a shaft that ran from the basement where Frank, the superintendent manned the large twisted rope that pulled a big two tiered box for collecting garbage up to the sixth floor and back. 

The mother sat at the end of the table feeding an infant. Her hair was wrapped in a rag, or if I remember what my mother used to call it in a teasing way, a babushka. She looked worn and tired. All the children looked up from the table without smiling except a little girl about five who managed a coy grin. I nodded to them all and followed the father into a large barren dining room with shiny wood floors and an immense oblong black table in the middle. There was a library against one wall filled with over sized books with Hebrew lettering. Above it a picture of an old rabbi with a long white beard holding a Torah stared out at me.

Yikvah was very shy and reluctant to come out of hiding from behind her father. I could see her frightened eyes peeking out from behind his pant leg. She was wearing a dark blue dress and black shoes. He said something to her in Yiddish and her eyes widened. She gripped his pants a little tighter. I can speak and understand a little Yiddish since that was the my grandmother’s native language from a shtetl in Galicia an area between the Ukraine and Poland. I shared a room with her throughout my childhood. I haven't used the language in a long time and believe I may have forgotten it. I try a little :

"Kim ahere" I say, which is something like "come over here." She hid a little deeper into her father's black pants.

"Kim Veer shpielen ein bissen"[come we'll play a little], I said in a friendly manner.

Something happened on that attempt: the little Yiddish I knew started coming out German. I was a soldier stationed in Germany for two years where I practiced the language often since it gave me an advantage with the frauleins. I had one German girl friend who allowed me to come home and meet her parents. After a while I was invited often and honed the German to at least first grade level.

" Commin sie auf [come out] I shouted, I didn't want to spend the day there. The father looked at me strangely.

"I was in Germany, forgive my Hitler Yiddish." I said in a slightly provocative but friendly manner.

He smiled while looking at me askance. Then he addressed his daughter again and she came out of hiding. She was a beautiful little girl about eight years old with big dark brown frightened eyes. I tried to get her to hop and skip but she just stared at me. Then I did a few jumping jacks but she just kept staring. The father coaxed her lovingly, then showed her: He jumped up and down, his chains and tsfillin, a prayer bead that winds around the waist, were bouncing off of his huge stomach, his pants raised up his leg as he lifted his arms over his head, his shirt came out of his pants and his skull cap shifted sideways.

"Sehr Gut "I smiled , the language coming out German again. Again I apologized.

"Does that make you nervous" I asked.

"As a matter of fact it does " he answered.

"I'll get the Yiddish after awhile" I offered. He didn't respond.

The little girl was difficult to test but between her father and I ,we relaxed her enough to get some information. I noticed that she had difficulty balancing over each leg and that her hips were slightly turned out.

"I'll put her on once a week; she's pretty good but could use a little direction." I said relieved that she participated enough and that I could carry out my role of determining the need for Physical Therapy.

"So you can't put her on twice?” he said, his palm turned upward his shoulders hiked. It was an endearing gesture and question that brought back memories from the Bronx. Sayings like: "What’s the matter you can't say hello?" or "Oh its too difficult to kiss a mother?"

I thought it over. " Sure, I'll put her on twice a week" I said controlling my urge to hike my shoulders up and say : "So once isn't enough for you."

"Would you like a little Kugel?" he offered.

"Yes, I would, thank you." I said

I sat down with the nine children and the father at the table that took up the entire kitchen. The wife, still weary looking, handed the baby to the oldest son who I learned was getting married that weekend. She scooped a slice of Kugel from a large rectangular aluminum pan and served it to me.

"Ess" he said, "enjoy."

The taste was so familiar, delicious but missing salt. Salt was evil in our family because my grandmother had high blood pressure and all food was devoid of it. Now I wondered if high blood pressure was common amongst Jews.

"Delicious" I said. "If I eat this I'll have some more Yiddish words," I kidded.

"Have another piece." He said.

"With two pieces I'll be fluent in Yiddish.

"Go ahead then , we'll have a big conversation.”You are in good shape, I was watching you jump around trying to get Yikvah to react."

'"I play basketball and have been for my whole life. It keeps me in shape." I said.

"Good for you" he said looking directly at me. "Do you pray?" he asked, out of the blue.

"I've been praying for one thing: that I dunk the ball once before I die," I said jokingly.

"That's what you pray for!" he said, suddenly serious.

"You've got something better," I joked in my now Yiddish inflection. "You know," I continued, that when you dunk a ball you are closer to God. Think of it, you're about eleven feet in the air!"

"Be serious, you ask God such a thing?" he said quizzically.

"I am serious. God wants us to have joy, to use our bodies. When you develop your body to the point of flying you are honoring God."

"Oy" he said, somewhat disgusted. “Have some more Kugel."
"No thanks. I have to go" I said.
I wanted to ask him what he prayed for and what he thought about Martin Buber,  women's liberation and the secular - orthodox struggles in Israel and the trials of having ten children and how he felt about me having a Catholic wife but I had two more calls to make; it was late afternoon, I'm sure the light was changing and Shabbus, the Sabbath, was just a few shadows away.

"Queen of Fourth Avenue" By Elizabeth Papazian - 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

"Queen of Fourth Avenue"


Elizabeth Papazian

Visiting my grandmother in her Sunset Park row house in the nineteen eighties was fraught with anxiety.           During that time I was in my twenties, and I used to drive from Queens through the constant and brutal barrage of traffic on the BQE, only to then have to drive in maze-like circles to find a parking spot in front of her house.  Worrying that I might either get mugged or trip on a curbside crack vial was another issue that made me think twice about seeing her. 

            Sometimes while driving on the Gowanus before her exit, I would pass the clustered houses off the highway and remember how as a kid I used to jump between the rooftop garages behind my cousin’s house in Bay Ridge.  Like playing urban hopscotch, we had great times.  But that’s another Brooklyn story. 
            I was also torn because nana helped raise me after my mom died when I was sixteen, leaving behind a Dad who was of little help since he was drunk most of the time.   Partial feelings of obligation and love often played in my heart, especially since she was alone.   My grandfather had been gone fifteen years during which time she became fiercely independent, travelling alone by subways well into her seventies.  She refused to listen to reason, even after getting mugged at gunpoint.

During a particular Saturday morning visit, I wasn’t prepared for the surprise she later bestowed upon me. 
            The night before, she asked me to run an errand.   
            “Oh dear, would ye be an angel and bring me a package of bobbies from the five and dime?  I’ve run out again.  Then we’ll have a nice visit.  If ye want we can go to that lovely rest’rant on Fourth Avenue.  I tink its run by I- talians,“ she said in her classic brogue. This reminded me of how she trusted no one other than the Irish. 
            “Of course, nana.  I’ll see you in the morning,” I said.  I was annoyed that I had to make another stop, and made a mental note to pick up a package of her favorite Woolworth bobby pins on the way.
            “Did I say large ones?   Not the tiny Bobbies for dolls.  The large ones!”
            “Yes, nana.  I know which ones.”
            “And while you’re at it, how about a bag of coffee nips?  That’ll be all now.”
            “Will do.”
            “And if you buy a small can of cat food or two we can feed the kittens on the porch.”  I thought of the dozen cats that crept along her trellised front porch covered with native flowers and ivy that climbed high enough to hide the outside street traffic.
            “Of course.  I have to go now.  See you tomorrow.”
            “I have something for you, miss,” she added mysteriously. 
            “I can’t wait.”  What the hell could it be?

I always called my grandmother nana, but the rest of the world knew her as Bridie.  A petite woman, she wore her hair in a twisted silver bun, and her reading glasses attached to a beaded necklace around her neck.  Her bright blue eyes were wide and convincing.  On special occasions she would top her bun with a navy or black pill-box hat which would match the dress and shoes she wore.  She didn’t own a pair of pants.  
            I got lucky this time and found a spot in front of her house, trying not to worry about my car being stolen because I felt safe in knowing I was visiting my family, and I belonged there.   Over the years when I visited her, no one ever bothered me.  Instead, her neighbors would greet me while speaking their New York Spanglish.
“Hola miss – have a nice visit with your abuela.”
“Gracias.  Por favor … watch my car?“
“Si, of course – go.”    
            When I let myself in with the spare key she had given me, I walked through the hallway’s narrow path littered with boxes of magazines and old broken lamps to the living room, suddenly I was hit with an overpowering smell of must and Raid.  
            Wearing a black tattered housecoat, she was sitting on the couch next to piles of newspaper and old chipped teacups on the corner telephone stand topped with a metal rotary phone.  Clothes and knick-knacks lay piled on the dining room table.  Thick yellow-beige

stockings hung on a clothesline strung across the archway between rooms.  Old copper tile ceilings framed the rooms, and I thought they were the only redeeming quality of her house.    
           Across the room on the armchair held a two foot high wooden crucifix.   Leaning there, literally like Christ himself sitting with us, it terrified me.  Years later I figured out how much it must have comforted her and brought her closer to the children she lost, to her husband and to her family of nine which she left behind in her home country.   That moment I missed my own mother fiercely, and imagined her looking down at us in the house she grew up in.   What must she think has happened to her mother?
We hugged and I pulled away from her unwelcome scent.
 “Tis so glad to see you.  Will ye be a dear and get my sewing kit upstairs in the front room?” she asked quickly.  “I need to darn this sweater”.
“Alright,” I obliged hesitantly.   Since she got sick and lived on the first floor, rarely did I venture to the second floor.  When I got there, I spied a single enormous roach creeping across the hallway between piles of clothing.  Magnified by the emptiness of the bedroom, it seemed to stop dead in its tracks and look at me, antennae glistening in the sun pouring through the dirty and bare window.  I knew there must have been more, hiding.
              I grabbed the sewing kit and bolted back down the big, wooden stairs.  My father told me once about the roaches and waterbugs that saturated the neighborhood from the grossly polluted Gowanus canal down the street.   He always got these things right.

“Nana, I am concerned about the bugs.  Have you called the exterminator?” 
 “I’ve called them, but they want too much money.  The last time they were here they
did a lousy job”, she replied angrily.   I made another mental note to call the exterminator, hoping it wouldn’t cut too much into my rent money.
“I’ll take care of it.  No worries”.
              She smiled when I handed her the sewing kit.   I moved a pile of books, and found a small area to sit.  Within minutes I cringed when I spotted a smaller version of the upstairs bug on the wall.  I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin.  What could I do, not sit down and insult her? 
             “How are you feeling today?” I asked. 
            “The usual… my back and legs.  ‘Tis awful.  Do yourself a favor and ne’er get old,” she said, her face awash in sadness.  My heart cried a little.
            I got up to check out the kitchen and looked out the back window at the narrow garage at the end of the driveway.  Its wooden door was locked tightly with a rusted chunky chain, and the windows were covered in tattered purple curtains.  Suddenly as I watched, there was movement by a graffiti smattered window.  I froze, wondering if I should call the police or scream to scare off a potential predator.
            Remembering another time we found a squatter living in the yard behind the hemlock trees, I thought I might take things in my own hands.

“Hey – get the hell out off of my property!” I yelled out a broken kitchen window. 
            Leaves shuffled in the breeze.  Relieved, I spotted a scraggly dog shoot out from behind the garage.  When I returned to my grandmother, I was visibly shaken.
            “Nana what are you going to do with the car?” I asked for the thousandth time over the years.  This time I had to remind her that its very presence in this neighborhood was an accident about to happen.
“One day I’ll put an advertisement in the paper.  These things take time.”  She apparently hadn’t heard my yelling.
“I’m worried someone will try and steal it, nana.”
“Can’t ye just leave an old woman alone, child!”
What I knew was that inside her garage was my grandfather’s black 1949 Volkswagen beetle in mint condition.  My mother and grandfather used it for local driving and to teach nana how to drive.  I imagine what her life would be like had she learned how to drive.  After leukemia took my grandfather, she firmly decided she would never learn. 
            “That sounds like a plan,” I said, knowing that she would never follow up.   Wouldn’t it be great if I could have it?

Taking her arm, after a short time we soon went to my car to head out to the diner.  On the way, I put out the tins of food for the myriad of kittens who crept in bushes along her porch. 

As we drove past the bodegas and laundromats to the restaurant, she commented on the nasty graffiti that dotted Fourth Avenue.  I imagine the contrast of the beauty of her picturesque hometown of Westport. 
After we ordered from a waitress who knew her, nana handed me a stack of faded onion skin papers that she had pulled out of her trademark big black bag.  When I held them, I noticed that they smelled musty and sweet.
“I’ve a favor to ask, Elizabeth.  Will you be a dear and type these poems for me?”
“I would love to, nana,” I lied.  Really it was the last project I wanted to get involved in, working full time and going to night school.  Little did I know what I was about to read.
“How long have you been writing poetry?”
“Here and there over the years, sometimes in the morning when I drink my tea and watch the bluebirds on my porch,” she said.
I read the first poem quietly, and was stunned at how eloquent and passionate it was, given her sixth grade Irish education.  With a college degree in English under my belt, I couldn’t match her talent.  I was astounded.  Other poems I glanced over contained messages of love, sorrow and great political discourse involving American and European government.   I knew she had taken writing classes at her local high school in nineteen-fifties Bay Ridge, but this was incredible work.
“Wow, they are beautiful.  I’d be honored to type these for you.” I said, hoping she wouldn’t notice the tears in my eyes.
Instead of signing her name, she used an unfamiliar Irish pen name.  Deciding I might be opening Pandora’s box, I said nothing.  Later I would ask around in the family about that name only to learn no such person existed.   
“Thank you dear.  You’re a smart young lass,” she smiled with eyes that lit up the room.

            At the time, I did not fully understanding the gift of my grandmother’s poems.   I do know that as I drove along the Gowanus expressway to the BQE headed back to Queens, I felt a strange sort of peace.  Instead of dread and worry about visiting her, on this day she gave me an unusual and profound gift.   As a writer, it has stayed with me for the rest of my life.

"The Real North 8th Street Romance" By Richard Vetere - 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

"The Real North 8th Street Romance"


 Richard Vetere

I thought my real North 8th Street romance was with Georgia.  That summer I was the only guy who was either brave or stupid enough to ask her out.  She had just broken her engagement with Gabe that early June and every night that summer when I went to the Miami Bar on North 8th Street she’d be there hanging out with girlfriends.   And like clockwork, early in the night, she’d leave the table and saunter across the room to play “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on the jukebox.  

Though new to hanging out on North 8th Street I knew this much, Gabe managed a well-known rhythm and blues band and his father was a wise-guy but Georgia was knock-out sexy. 

I asked his cousin Little Guy if I should ask her out since Little Guy knew the world of Williamsburg, Brooklyn and its rules better than I did.  “Shit yeah,” Little Guy answered.   So I made a plan.  I’d walk up to the jukebox where nobody could hear them talk, ask her out and then leave the bar.  His friend Frankie would already be in the car and they’d drive away.  It was a like a hit but one for romance.

So, the next night I sat at the bar with one eye on Gabe and the other on Georgia.   She was on the other side at the table and just like I expected she walked over to the jukebox and played “Jumpin Jack Flash.”  I slid up beside her at the junk box.  “Georgia, you want to go out,” was all I said.   

“Alright,” she answered looking surprised.  She then told him her number and like I planned I left the bar.

I took Georgia to club in Forest Hills called the Wine Cellar for their first date.  “Nobody in the neighborhood had the guts to ask me out but you,” she said.  She had soft brown eyes, shoulder length hair, a slender build, a confidence that enticed him and the hottest ass I had ever seen.  I asked her more about her relationship with Gabe.  “We’ve been engaged twice now.  But this time, I realized I wasn’t the right guy for me.  So I ended it.”
I took her back to my parents’ house in Queens where I lived in the finished basement and they had sex for the first time.  They continued to have sex for the next two weeks and never did much talking.   The sex play came easy to them both.  I liked how she taught him new things and I taught her.

The only thing that concerned him was getting her pregnant.  She didn’t like it when I pulled out.  I remembered how his Uncle Sal always talked about how his life was changed for the worse when I got his first wife pregnant.  So despite being enthralled by Georgia I was also suspicious.

One night in the Miami Bar a guy I hardly knew came up to him and told him that Gabe wanted to see him.  His cousin Little Guy told him not to go but I went anyway.  Gabe was waiting for him.  “You got balls.  I like that,” Gabe said then pinched his cheeks.    

Later that night Georgia told him “You shouldn’t have given him the respect.” She then invited me to a close friend’s wedding the following weekend.

That night when we had sex she took off her panties and said, “These are my girlfriend Mary Jane’s.”  They were red and see-through.  “You’ll meet her at the wedding.  You’re going to fall in love with her.  Every man who meets her does.”

     We arrived at the wedding late and when we walked in I saw a woman wearing a black dress dancing slowly with a man in a suit in the middle of the dance floor.  The woman was crying.  I was mesmerized by the sight of this beautiful dark-haired woman with tears rolling down her face dancing as she did. “That’s Mary Jane,” Georgia told him.  

     Minutes later Mary Jane was sitting next to me.  The guy went off to another table.  I handed Mary Jane a handkerchief.  “Thank you,” she said.   Up close she was even more beautiful.  She was a light skinned Sicilian-American with lush brunet hair and deep green eyes.  They made small talk but she eventually told him that she was crying because she broke up with the man she was dancing with.  “He wouldn’t leave his wife for me,” she said.  
When the wedding was over I got her jacket.  “You keep doing nice things for me.  “Georgia said you’re a good guy,” she told me.
     “Georgia said I’d fall in love with you,” I told her. 
Two weeks later I ran into her and asked her out under the false pretense that Georgia left me and I needed to talk about it.  A week later I was in bed with Mary Jane in her apartment on Manhattan Avenue.  I recognized her red see-through panties.

     Mary Jane saw that I did.  “I gave them to Georgia to wear one night,” she demurred.  “She told me she wore them with you.”
I told my cousin Little Guy I was seeing Mary Jane.  “You’re crazy.  You were better dating a mob guy’s ex than that broad.  Grown men go nuts over her.  I knew this made-guy that when she broke up with him last year he shot up a bar on KIerbocker Avenue he was so distraught.  Watch yourself.”   

I should have listened to my cousin but I had no control because like other men before him I was beguiled by her perfect breasts, her perfect ass, the perfect face and how uninhibited she was in bed.  Mary Jane was also the most sensitive woman I had never met.  She cried often and without reason.  Both her parents were beautiful and born deaf.  Her father was a national weight lifting champion.  When she was only nineteen she married a big deal mob guy’s son who three months into their marriage walked out to buy a pack a cigarettes and never came back. 

  He died less than a year later in a head-on car crash with a drunk driver on the LIE.  His father made the other driver, a junkie, disappear the day of his son’s funeral.  Mary Jane never divorced him and the father took care of her for years by sending her cash.

     I took Mary Jane everywhere including my college graduation dance.  She made the college girls look like high school kids and his friends were enthralled by the fact that she was a gorgeous widow.  But his mother never liked her and Mary Jane knew it.  

 Mary Jane demanded attention and when she didn’t get it, she made the world suffer.  One day it was his turn.   She moved to Queens and I helped her get settled in.  She had a small hole in door where her old lock was and I promised he’d fill it.

One day for no apparent reason after being out for dinner then went back to her place and she broke up with him.  “You’re too immature for me,” she said.  

For several months I defied common sense and begged her to take him back.  I called all my friends day and night talking about nothing else.  

One night, after calling her number all day, I went to her new apartment uninvited.  She didn’t answer his knocks on the door so he leaned down and peeked in through the whole where the old lock was that I never got the chance to fix.  

I saw her sitting in a chair on the other side of the room nude facing the door in the dim light of a lit candle.  I could see her green eyes gleaming brightly and her full dark hair cascading down over her shoulders.  She was staring at the peep hole.  Her flesh was more tempting than the promise of a long healthy life is to the dying.  She was everything mysterious, alluring, sexual and dangerous.  

I turned away and never went back.  

                   THE END