Authors: Mark Kurlansky
"And me?" Why was this happening? It was starting to feel as though someone were slapping him over and over again.
"You are not married. Isn't it time?"
"Oh yes, I would love to be married. And Naomi is such a treasure." In precious metals alone, he thought to himself. "But Naomi is interested in somebody else."
"Somebody else? She is marrying him?"
"You'll have to talk to them. The—ah—what's-his-name. The bookseller."
"A bookseller? She's found herself a bookseller! He's Jewish, of course."
Mordy nodded. "I think so. He's right over there. You know, that guy over there with the pink hair."
"With the pink—"
"Yeah, right there." Mordy pointed across the avenue near Sixth Street, and there was a tall, skinny man standing by a table of used books. And though his spiky hair was bright pink, he somehow looked Jewish. He sold books that he found, and it was true that he went out with Naomi, and it was on that very corner that Mordy had met her talking to the bookseller about a paperback on the work of Hegel with an essay that had begun, "World history is not the verdict of mere might, i.e., the abstract and nonrational inevitability of a blind destiny." Mordy, like his brother, had a perverse and irrepressible fascination with Germans.
After his massage, Nathan left and Sonia was freed for paying customers. Ruth looked after Sarah, which was how Sonia could keep her business. She could hear Ruth in another room, teaching Sarah songs.
dem schtetl schteyt a schtibl,"
Ruth would sing.
da stubble, spit a stibble,"
Sarah would try to repeat.
"Mit a grinem dach,"
Ruth would continue.
Ruth admired Sonia and especially admired the way she ran her little business. She had select clientele, and she charged good prices. "You make copies all day to make what Sonia gets in an hour," she would say to Nathan, who she thought, like Harry, had a habit of undercharging. Sonia charged full prices to everyone, except the family. Even then, Ruth admired the way she would not extend her free family service to Mordy because, as Ruth put it, "she could see what a schnorrer he was." She did not want to charge full price to Ruth's friend Esther, who visited from the Bronx on Saturdays. But Ruth wanted Sonia to charge her. "Otherwise you'll end up operating like a Seltzer." Sonia wrote the observation in her notebook.
Sonia and Esther would trade neighborhood crime reports while Sonia's skilled fingers reshaped Esther's soft body.
"We had a shooting down here."
"It's everywhere now Who did they shoot?"
From the next room came the insistent Sarah: "By
da stupple, struk a stibble."
"Let's go back
said Ruth, laughing.
"Rabbinowitz. Do you remember him?"
"The dairy place!"
"Yes," said Sonia, and braced herself for the standard eulogy she had been hearing. But all Esther said, her face framed by an oval cushion at the head of the table, her voice trailing off underneath, was, "Not such a pearl, that one." Sonia would give her a good rub.
"Feygele, feygele, pi-pi-pi,"
Ruth and Sarah sang.
Nathan bought a
from Mohammed and walked to his shop. What was this sense of predestination, the fatal error? Was it somehow tied to Rabbinowitz? He resolved not to do anything because of the Rabbinowitz shooting. He must be alert not to let that event alter his course. That decision of a decade ago on when to make the deposit would not be part of his destiny
But then again, might not the decision to ignore the shooting be in itself a fatal error? Could he both not respond to and not ignore the shooting? Was this possible?
Pepe Le Moko curled his soft black fur around Nathan's leg, always glad to see him. The name came from Nathan's favorite movie,
which he had seen exactly fourteen times.
He first saw it at the St. Mark's in a triple feature for a dollar along with the French original. He could no longer remember the third film. Pepe Le Moko, the cat, really did resemble Charles Boyer in his black suits and black shirts. Pepe Le Moko was king of the Casbah in Algiers, a maze of garbage-strewn alleys, stairways, bridges, and tunnels too complex for outsiders, including the police, to find their way through. But if he ever set foot outside the Casbah, the police would grab him instantly. Sometimes he went to a gate and looked out at clean streets and cars and the world outside. But he stayed in his slum kingdom and lived almost regally—until he met Hedy Lamarr. In pursuit of Lamarr, he was lured out and handcuffed by the police right at the port with the whole Mediterranean just out of reach. He sees her, a tiny figure on the stern of an ocean liner leaving for Marseilles, and he runs uselessly toward the ship. He is shot by the police, who think he is escaping, and dies on the dock as the ship sails away.
Nathan thought about the movie, rerunning it in his memory, imagining Boyer's chocolatey baritone while he stroked Pepe Le Moko's black fur. Thinking of the movie always gave him a strange, melancholy, almost frightened feeling. He realized now that it was a milder version of the same feeling he had experienced on the F train. So that was not the first time. And there were the pillows that morning. When else had this feeling come to him?
Nathan sank into the pivoting chair in his copy shop and, as he began most days, picked up his newspaper and, to the lively tintinnabulation of a Beethoven piano concerto, turned to the obituary page and began counting. An unusually bad day: Of six obituaries, four had been younger than him. AIDS, cancer, heart attack, and one didn't say. One thing Nathan hated was an obit that failed to give the cause of death. Why did they think people read obituaries? Nathan railed in silence. Not to read about lives. We want to know about the deaths. Life is easy. It's death we are trying to learn about.
Thoughts of death were abruptly shoved aside in the second movement of the Beethoven when Jasha Sternberg walked through the door and, as though it were contraband, nervously placed on the counter a flyer to be copied. Jasha owned the Bukovina Baths on the next block. On Thursday evenings, so many religious people used to line up to use the baths in preparation for
that Nathan could see the crowd from his shop. But the
business had almost disappeared, and Jasha was in a desperate search for new business. His "A Place to Bathe in Peace" campaign had not gotten a response. Nathan examined the new flyer, "A Place to Meet Boys," and Jasha could see the skepticism in Nathan's face. "So how do you attract gays?"
As though to answer that, Gecko came through the door in his black leather pants and matching sleeveless top. The lack of sleeves on the heavy leather outfit was the only concession to the warm weather. But more likely it was only to expose his tattoos—snakes that slithered intricately up a fruit tree.
"Gecko, do you attract gay customers?"
"All kinds, man," and he sifted through his latest tattoo designs that he had drawn with pen and ink—scenes from Dante's descent into hell, strange, winged creatures. "Have you noticed, it's getting harder all the time to be an artist in this neighborhood. I sell my designs framed. Then this guy comes in and he wants a flag. I mean an American flag. And he wants it on his arm. Right on his fucking bicep.. .."
Jasha was eagerly following the story, hoping it had an insight for him. "He was gay, right?"
Gecko ignored him. "I mean, there are interesting places for a flag, but that is not one. So I am thinking, what can I do to make this special? So this is what I come up with. Look at this."
He placed on top of the pile a drawing of an unfurling red, white, and blue American flag. The tall, straight mast from which the flag is flying is a bright red penis.
"That is a masterpiece," Jasha declared in feigned awe.
"Well, yes, it is," Gecko condescended to state the obvious, "but he says, 'I can't have
on my arm.' Why not? 'It's a penis,' he says. What is it with these people? Is he afraid of penises? I told him, 'Are you sure you want a flag? Because flags are for people who are into penises'—the guy walks out. If he wants schlock, he can go to Eighth Street. I was offering something original. Art."
"He just wasn't gay," suggested Jasha.
Jose the fish seller came in. "Seltzer-san!
O-high-yoh. O-genki des-ka!"
"Ohio to you," said a confused Nathan. "What's going on?" He picked up the pages Jose had put on the counter. It was a sushi menu.
dinero in este barrio,
Seltzer-san? Japanese. Japanese everything. Why should I sell fish when I can cut it up in little pieces and get
Ee-yo!" The Japanese words were said with great grunts and sudden breathy shouts, sounds that he had learned from rented samurai films. His phrases were entirely from
the Japanese for Business
phrase book. Some of his most impressive declarations made little sense, such as when he shouted angrily,
"Futari-yoh-no tehburu-o onegigh shimas!"
which meant "I would like a table for two." But it sounded impressive, and who knew, anyway? Not Jasha, who stared with appreciation.
"Maybe I'm making a mistake with the gay thing. Maybe I should be going for a geisha thing. Or maybe"—he held his temples for a second while the idea was forming—"gay geishas! Why not?"
A day's work had begun at the Meshugaloo Copy Center. Nathan had a new act
of Emma and Margarita
to copy, flyers for a party on Second Street that involved reducing a newspaper montage, and the posters for the Avenue D street fair, which featured Chow Mein Vega and the Yiddish Boogaloo and a three-round "grudge match" between Jimmy Colon and El Dominicano.
The day was already warming up on the streets. Young girls with rings through their noses were facing the heat in flimsy lace or swaths of thin cotton that showed the tattoos on their bodies. A young woman rode a bicycle once every morning down Avenue A, leaning forward on the handlebars, always in a thin cotton summer dress translucent in the sunlight. A tiny part of Harry's busy heart belonged to this woman, whoever she was, and he would try to be on Avenue A at the right time every morning to have this moment. Harry wondered if people noticed how much he was looking. Mordy, who walked a slow, very un-Jewish four-step with his untied shoelaces clicking like taps on the rim of a snare drum, certainly looked. But his eyes never seemed focused on anything, and he just smiled. Was it that aloofness that was so irresistible? The thing most people seemed to notice about Mordy was that his shoes were untied. It fascinated Mordy how many people in the course of a day would tell him that his shoes were not tied. He walked down the street with a faint smile, undressing women with his eyes, and periodically he was told that his shoes were not tied.
Harry in his role as producer, had to meet Chow Mein and Ruben at Cristofina's and somehow make Ruben into El Dominicano. Cristofina—odd for a Dominican woman—looked a little like Emma Goldman. Of course, no one realized this until Sonia pointed it out, presenting a photo of Emma as evidence. They were both heavyset with broad features, angry eyes, and thick, round glasses. They both had the same vertical crease between their eyes. Cristofina had taped the photo of Emma to the shelf that housed a delicate blue statue of Yemayá, the Yoruba spirit of womanhood, and several manifestations of the Holy Virgin, and Emma seemed to glare from the shelf, angry about the company she was keeping these days.
The botanicawas lined with shelves of bottles, mostly old perfume bottles with potions that could do many things, especially make people fall in love. Cristofina said, "All anybody really wants is for someone to love them. Whether I make someone fall in love with them, or I make them look younger so that someone will fall in love with them, or I make them a better lover so that they will be loved, or they want someone punished for not loving them—
eso es todo."
There were also statues, some very small, some large, like a five-foot palm tree with the face of Changó, a spirit of power, passion, and thunder, in the top with a bolt of lightning. Some were Indian warriors, some were sailors, some were dark-skinned dolls in white or bright blue dresses. No one's life was so perfect that at some time they didn't go to Cristofina for a few drops of magic.
When the door was open to the back room, it revealed walls covered with fanciful designs from devils to paisley to devils in paisley. Originally this had been part of her botanica business. A santo, spirit, or orisha or its sign could be tattooed on the body. But the dark, complex themes of her tattoos became popular with many young people who had no interest in the orishas but simply liked the designs, her African mythology giving fierce competition to Gecko's artistry.
Ruth, although appalled by the product, would have admired Cristofina's business acumen. Her approach was simple: One way or another, anyone who walked through her red door on Avenue C left money there.
In walked Chow Mein, Harry, and sweet-faced Ruben. After Chow Mein explained the problem in Spanish, telling about the fair, the match, the role of El Dominicano, why the old El Dominicano was in jail, Harry, not knowing what Chow Mein had said, explained it again in English while Cristofina waited patiently and finally said,
I've got it," which made Harry instantly certain that Cristofina could be depended on.
She reached up and rubbed Ruben's sweet face with her thick fingers, rubbing the surfaces, examining the planes, as though she were a plastic surgeon. Ruben, large and awkward, withdrew a half step in embarrassment, then helplessly endured the study from his only slightly safer distance.
you think this is going to be easy?" Which Chow Mein but not Harry understood to mean, Y
ou think this is going to be cheap?
She continued, "I could make him Dominicano. He would make a nice Dominicano. But El Dominicano, who must strike fear into all your timid little Puerto Rican hearts, Chucho?"
"He's a big boy," argued Chow Mein.