Friday, February 1, 2019

Winner of the 2018 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize

"Neighborhood Ghosts"
                                                                                      Mark P. Cohen   

The era of Gussie Cohen has ended. But in her own way, she prepared me for her demise. Despite her overwhelming tendency to remember little, if anything from one moment to the next, my mother appeared quite happy in her Brooklyn apartment whenever I’d pay her a visit. Dementia at old age may make you forget a lot; but at least in Gussie’s case, it had not rendered her unpleasant or out of control. If anything, Gussie seemed humored by her own state of confusion. At least until she stopped speaking and began the process of easing the life out of herself. 

For ten years as Gussie’s condition declined, I fought with my sister over what was best for our mother. I held firm that the humane choice was to let our mother live out the rest of her life in her Brooklyn apartment of twenty-eight years which was just across the street from her previous apartment of thirty years. To me, her apartment and her Boro Park neighborhood provided a familiar comfort. Truth be told, I also had my selfish reasons for keeping Gussie in Brooklyn. Moving my mother out of her apartment meant that I would lose my last living connection to the neighborhood of my youth and this scared me as much as my mother’s gradual demise. 

Then Gussie fell, fracturing her hip. Confined to a wheel chair and dementia more pronounced, my mother now needed a level of care that was no longer practical to administer out of apartment 3-J. My sister, who defected from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn to New Jersey years prior, would finally get her way. Off to the Daughters of Israel in West Orange, New Jersey went Gussie. 

It was the only time I ever dreaded returning to Brooklyn. So much so, that I avoided the trip for four months. But I ran out of excuses for paying rent on an apartment my mother would never again occupy. The dismembering of Brooklyn memories stored in my mother’s apartment and the return of this valued, rent-controlled unit back to the landlord had to be done. The shrine to my childhood neighborhood, to my parents’ existence, and most importantly, my last physical connection to Brooklyn, was about to come to a metaphysical end. Sitting in my Oakland, California home, so distant in too many ways from my Brooklyn roots, I was in a state of definitional crisis. 

It’s a way of life for every kid growing up in Brooklyn to spend countless days and nights with buddies on a neighborhood patrol of some sort, acquainting him or herself with every street, every store. Despite having grown into something that resembles an adult, I still found myself on patrol whenever I’d return to Brooklyn to visit my mother. Only, on these return trips my mission was quite different. Wandering around the streets of Boro Park, I would seek out the ghosts of my past, hoping they lead me to the portal of my youth.  

I pass by a storefront that housed Bernie’s, a luncheonette on 55th Street and New Utrecht where the best egg creams in Boro Park were made. I walk by the YMHA on 49th Street and 14th Avenue where I played basketball and took guitar lessons. I have a slice of kosher pizza at Amnon’s on 49th Street and 13th Avenue where some of the original members of the Jewish Defense League hung out acting tough with their yarmulkes hanging vicariously on the back of their curly haired heads, cigarettes dangling from the corner of their mouths. I go by Linick’s, a toy store still on 13th Avenue, where my mother took me every birthday. I stop and stare at the edifices of all these structures as a means of inducing the vision of particular Boro Park moments that defined and at times, traumatized me as I grew up.

Throughout the first thirty years of my northern California life in exile, I took comfort in knowing that by means of my periodic family visits, the connection that enabled me to conjure up the portal to my Brooklyn roots would always be there. But this point of entry would be broken along with Gussie’s hip. What will become of my Brooklyn identity without her apartment or family as a portal?  

I arrive at JFK airport late afternoon on a December Sunday with twenty-five-degree temperature smacking me in the face. I embrace this cold, allowing it to reach into my body and grab hold of my bones, sending me back to all my frigid, gray Brooklyn winters. I open my mother’s apartment door only to be rushed by a wave of radiator steam heat stored up for months. My face immediately flushes. I take a deep breath as I look around at all this stuff of a lifetime and wonder where I’m going to find the fortitude to sort through and dispose of it all. 

I wake up the next morning startled by my mother’s voice. She’s asking if I want something to eat. It’s a dream of course. Clearly, I need to straighten up with a strong cup of coffee before I confront Gussie’s ghost and that of her possessions. So, I run away to Park Slope, a third world neighborhood of the well to do middle class, which by no coincidence, resembles my own Oakland neighborhood.   

Sitting in the Connecticut Muffin on 7th Avenue, sipping my coffee, I overhear some young would be film maker next to me on his cell phone complaining way too conspicuously about his film’s poor graphics. The cultural contrast between Hasidic Jewish old world Boro Park and assimilated artsy intellectual Park Slope slaps me silly. I belong in Boro Park confronting ghosts. Back I go, but not before stopping at Cohen’s hardware store on 13th Avenue for heavy duty 30-gallon black garbage bags and then Weiss bakery for a black and white. As if a drug, I ingest this classic cookie on the spot. Instantly this snack of my youth induces a neighborhood sensibility. Under the influence, I’m ready to begin the task of dissembling my mother’s apartment and rousting out all those ghosts. 

I finish the living room of ancient ash trays, plastic flowers, faded picture albums, 25th wedding anniversary mementos and start on the bedroom. I come across my father’s high holiday prayer books in a night table hidden underneath my mother’s kerchiefs and decades of birthday and anniversary cards. Instantly I see Al seated in the back row of the Infants Home synagogue a half block away on 56th Street, praying on Yom Kipper, the day of atonement, asking me to run ahead and fetch him a cigar so he could smoke as soon as the holiday was officially over. These books I keep. They are portals. 

Like an hallucinogen that by the touch absorbs through the skin, hundreds of stories connected to my past leach into my mind, playing themselves out as I pick up each item of clothes, each piece of costume jewelry, each old cooking pot, each chipped soup bowl. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, and family meals flash through me. By seven in the evening I’m well into the kitchen, tripping out. Back to Amnon’s. This time, for a falafel and Coke to fuel me for the swing shift. 

Working right through my emotions, I kept bagging stuff that simply must go until I’ve exhausted all capacity to absorb only to discard my past. When it came to a point where it felt like I was self-inflicting wounds, I realized it was time to stop. It was two in the morning. I crashed.

I lurch awake at 8:00 a.m. to the relentless honking of a yeshiva school bus. I have no perspective anymore, just a directive. Absorb, bag, and discard the rest of my mother’s apartment over the next two days. I try maintaining some controlled introspection, but it’s no longer possible as I momentarily hold on to object after object, each one inducing its own hallucination of the past. By deep into Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of memory inducing objects had passed through my hands leaving their psychedelic residue. I’m dizzied by memories ramming themselves into me. I have to sit down.

When the room stops spinning I realize what was happening. The memory associated with each object handled was being scanned into my mind. Only, I was entering emotional data and frames of reference at such a rate that I could not keep up. I took comfort in my belief that while I may be discarding the physical nature of my mother’s stuff, the story each object tells had been stored.   

I completely forget about lunch on Tuesday and only stop for dinner when I run out of black plastic bags. I go back to Cohen’s Hardware for more and pick up a roast chicken and kugel at MealMart to sustain me. By midnight I had for the most part, fleeced the living room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen of all objects, most of which were black bagged. The apartment was clearly thinning as I disposed of some twenty-eight black bags of stuff. All that now remained were the contents of two hall closets, one kitchen hutch, and the various furniture pieces in each room. For the furniture, I arranged with some Russians who worked for a Jewish charity in Flatbush to take it off my hands at noon the next day.     

I couldn’t have been more than ten when my mother bought The Art of Jewish Cooking by Jenny Grossinger, the matriarch of the famous Catskills resort of the same name. For years, the book remained on our kitchen shelf, more as a reminder of our annual brief escape from Brooklyn’s summer heat than for actual use. The Art of Jewish Cooking had gone missing for at least two decades. 

Layers of plastic place mats and paper bags pasted to the floor from spilled detergents and cleaning fluids lie on the bottom of the built-in wooden overpainted kitchen hutch. I peeled away and there it was, The Art of Jewish Cooking. The cover was ripped. Otherwise, the book was intact. 

The mere act of paging through the recipes had unlocked the fragrances of the Echo dining room, the Catskill hotel I once worked in. Pepper steak, stuffed cabbage, roast chicken, brisket, carrot tzimmes, kasha varnishes, vegetable cutlet, barley and mushrooms, cheese blintzes, brown Betty; it was all there and more. This was not a cook book. The Art of Jewish Cooking was a collection of formulas and incantations which if combined by the correct hand, would send you back to your primal roots as a Lower East Side Jew just before the migration to Brooklyn occurred. I nearly cried.  

The Russians surprised me the next day by showing up on time and in less than an hour, the furniture was gone. It was all too fast for me. The sun streaming through the living room and kitchen windows now illuminated the emptiness of my mother’s apartment and the loss I felt. 

The next and final morning, as a tribute to my father, I go to morning prayers at Shomrei Emunah, a synagogue on 53rd Street and 14th Avenue. With black leather jacket and a clean-shaven face, I’m out of place in appearance but not in tribal connection. The ancient custom of making an apparent visitor welcome was graciously followed in this basement sanctuary filled with bearded men. I was given the honor of dressing the Torah after it had been read. I could feel my father’s presence.

I exit the shul knowing that this is the last time I would be walking to my mother’s apartment. I promised my wife and kids that I would bring back some black and white cookies. So, to prolong this final walk, I take a detour and head for Straus Bakery on 52nd Street and 13th Avenue. I walk out with a chocolate mandel bread, sponge cake, marble cake, and two Shabbos challahs to accompany the six black and whites I originally set out for. Clearly, I was overcompensating for my impending loss.

I could stall no longer. Walking back to Gussie’s apartment from 13th Avenue, I became acutely aware that this was the final time in my life I would be going home. Growing up, I must have walked this route a thousand times. Never before this time, had the ghosts so relentlessly appeared. There was the Paris and Holtzman butcher shop where my mother got her meat and where I worked as a delivery boy; Breuner’s bakery where while waiting my turn to buy rye bread and onion rolls, I would see Holocaust survivors next to me with tattooed numbers on their forearms. And of course, Bernie’s Luncheonette where I got my egg creams, Spaulding stick balls, and Topps baseball cards. Then I walked by this house on 55th Street off New Utrecht Avenue and instantly, I saw the first girl I ever felt love for, standing in her front yard smiling at me. We were just twelve. Finally, when I walked by the location of the apartment house I grew up in, I saw myself and my friends seated on the steps of 5501-14th Avenue eating ice cream we just got from Al the ice cream man who came around with his ice cream truck to provide us with much needed relief from the hot summer night. lt was all so vivid as I got closer and closer to my final destination.

My packed suitcase standing in the empty dining room told me it’s time to go. With the few minutes I had remaining, I paced through each barren room, holding on for one last time. By my third cycle, I’m induced into a deep state of tears. This is the end. How am I now going to connect with who I am as a Brooklyn boy? In a matter of seconds, when for the last time in my life I walk out that door, this apartment will be gone. This neighborhood, this borough of Brooklyn, this religion, this working-class sensibility; I need to connect with it. My west coast survival depends on it. What am I going to do now? I’m terrified. 

Four years later Gussie Cohen passed on. 

I miss my neighborhood. I miss Brooklyn. I go back to visit my niece who had long since abandoned her Midwood, Brooklyn roots to live in Livingston, New Jersey. She always invites me to stay with her family in their huge suburban home. She thinks me strange when I insist that at least for the first few days, I stay at the Park House, a hotel on 48th Street in Boro Park. I tell her I need to visit my old neighborhood as much as I need to visit my family. What I don’t tell her is that when I do, the ghosts come out to greet me. They take me by the hand and walk me through the portal.