G. David Schwartz
In The Tavern
Because we have to feed these people who live with us, because, Maria
tells me, starvation is a form of murder and most forms of murder are
crimes against the state, and so we have to feed these people, Maria
sent me to the local store for a loaf of bread. "And," she told me
as I left, "Don't loaf around."
Naturally this last remark confused me. I parked around.
I strutted around. I lanced around. But I was careful not to
loaf around and, by the time I realized I need to get the bread and
return to my flat, I walked into a tavern. It was to be expected.
I did not know the town as well as Maria. Before I realized my
mistake, I was deeply involved in a mug of beer and a discussion.
I wanted to be through with each of them quickly, but the
conversation was not to be stopped. I attempted several times to
leave, but the man had a land on the sleeve of my jacket and was not
about to let me go. What could I do? I had several more
"Were you talking to me," I asked when he began.
He gave me a look as if to say: Why would I be talking to you?
Then he said, "Of course I am." He swirled in his chair, spilled
beer on my new shoes, and bent my ear, and my sleeve, for the next few
hours. And such nonsense! He spoke such nonsense you would
think your mother-in-law was visiting. Notice I emphasize YOUR
mother-in-law. My Sophie Buttdinskiwitz is an angel. A
"I'm a tool-maker," he is telling me, "I make tools. A
toolmaker does not make garments. A toolmaker does not make
candles. A toolmaker does not make cows or butcher blocks or
radios. A tool maker does not make books."
"A tool-maker..." I offered.
"A tool maker makes...tools. The problem is," he raised his
hand, so I inspected for missing digits or gnarled formations which
would have prevented his making tools, which is what a tool maker does,
but saw none, "The problem is, with electrification and
industrialization, socialization and imagination, you can get a tool to
I shrugged haplessly.
"A tool to make tools!" he re-stated, "Have you ever heard of such
"I've heard quite a bit of nonsense..." I offered.
"Of course you have. But never such whimsy as a tool that makes
tools. It's just not logical, I tell you. It just does not
make sense. It's like needing a ratchet to make ratchets, or
borscht to make borscht. Can you possibly wrangle sense out of
"Not that," I said prideful, having completed a whole thought."
It's a good thing we are historical materialist," he said. I
thought I noticed a sneer.
"Oh? Why is that?"
"Because we have such intellectual problems," he said. "We have
cognitive problems. We have epistemological problems. We
have comprehension and postulate problems."
"Why do you mean?" I asked involuntarily.
Well, I did not see the reason I had to stand there and take such
remarks from a perfect stranger, so I introduced myself.
"Leon," he said, "A good name, Leon. You stupid?"
"No," I said, "I'm Leon."
Apparently he did not see the humor in my remark. "Most of our
country is stupid. Tell me if you see the sense in this, Leon.
That is your name, isn't it? Leon."
"Tell me if you see the sense in this, Leo. If a person desires
to leave the country..."
"No," I answered quickly, "I don't see the sense in that!"
"I'm not done. I'm not done, Leonard. A person desires to
leave the country, and the state has paid for his or her education, the
state says it is not right for the educated person to take his or her
education out of the state. That makes sense, doesn't it, Lionel?"
"Yes. That makes perfect sense," I said, and indicated to the
keep that I needed, really needed, another beer.
"But if you insist on your right to leave the country, and you have
every right to leave the country, they put you in jail. So in
other words, Lax, they give you an education. They want you to use
your education. But if you want to use your education in a
different country, they put you in jail. They put you in jail, and
you can't use your education. If you are in jail..."
"Where do you want to go?" I asked involuntarily.
"No such place," I said, "You might as well want to go to utopia.
Look. We'd better drop this subject."
"You're absolutely right, Latka. So, I petition the state and
they refuse. They send a polite letter, which, once you dig
through the gobblie-goo and the rigmarole, says ‘no.’ So I petition the
state? again, and they arrest me. They put me in jail and tell me,
'Look, comrade, jail is better than exile.' And when they let me out of
jail, a well-meaning communist party member says, 'You were short term.
Petition again and you will go to Siberia.'"
"I have friends in Siberia," I said.
"I'm sure. We all have friends in Siberia. Anyway,
Lasagna, I'm in jail and what do they want me to do? Read a book!
They want me to read a book! They tell me it will make me a
bonified communist. Well, I tell them I don't want any bones in me
"You know you have bones in you now," I say, being a master of the
"What?" He jumps up. He flails his arms. He
stretches his arms. What he does not do it let go of my sleeve?
I accidentally hit a woman who says, as she staggers into my chest,
"Hello. I'm a Capricorn." I respond, "Really? I'm not
as familiar with the diverse sections of the party as I should be!"
"Party," she says, cooing and giggling as she staggers away.
"Anyway," he says after settling into his seat, "I'll assume you are
kidding, Lettuce. Let's see, so where was I? Oh, yes!
So when I get out of jail, I go to get my old job back and they tell me
I have no job. Of course I don't, I tell them, but I should have.
There is none, they tell me. What, I ask. They say a machine
has been brought in to take my place. Meanwhile, I get a letter
from the state, which says I must have socially useful labor or I will
be determined to be a vagrant, and be put in jail. Unless, I am made to
understand, this is a second offense, in which case I will be sent
"Of course. That's where they employ chemical workers."
"But I thought you were a tool-maker."
"Tool maker! Chemical maker! Look, if the state says you
are something, you are that which they say. Look at me!"
I took a good look at the man. He had not shaved in several
days and his clothes were filthy. In spite of this, however, he
had the regal brow of an intelligent person, and the bright eyes of a
thinker. Or a drunk.
"I'm a piece of shit," he continued, "They told me so when I left
jail. So, I think, I'm a piece of shit. Everyone not in the
communist party is a piece of shit. Israel is not in the communist
party. It's just plain logical. So you use a little
deductive power, and you know what follows."
"Siberia," we say together.
"What gets me is that we are not allowed to talk about
certain things, which is ridiculous. You can't understand what
you’re not supposed to talk about, anyway. It's the old egg
"Yes, the egg problem. To make an omelet you must crack some
eggs. The egg the soviet state has decided to crack is me!
So I persevere in spite of the Stalinist legacy."
"The Stalinist legacy?"
"Yes, the legacy which says that we need state permission to break an
I intend to think about his remark, but he goes on: "Of course,
Lentil, this brings us back to the cognitive problem. After all,
it was the Hungarian philosopher Lukacs who said that the appropriate
egg does not exist; therefore we must break it hard. I prefer
Sartre. He said eggs are manifest scarcity. Cracking must
occur elsewhere. The early Merleau-Ponty, by which I think they
mean the young Merleau-Ponty said that to perceive the egg is to
perceive the contour of the revolution. He may have been correct,
except that Walter Benjamin stated, succinctly and profoundly, that an
egg broken while reading Rilke will not taste the same as an egg broken
while ready Kafka. If this is not truth, I don't know what is!"
"I don't understand..."
"Lucien Goldman also said something important and relevant.
Goldman said, if I may paraphrase, those eggs are admissible foul
without wings or beaks, legs or a head. Rigidly divided into
yellow, or yolk, and while, with various apertures denoting the vacancy
of plumage, they, by which I believe he means eggs, are a parable for
the borders between the motherland and China as well as pre-dialectical
evidence which shall be properly disposed of, in all sense of the term,
in the proletariat state. I hope I have not used a word or phrase
you have not understood."
"No. No, not at all," I lied.
"Good! Because there is a general confusion, amongst ourselves
as well as our captive allies about what certain words or phrases mean.
There is this nagging intellectual confusion I keep talking about,
Lenoid. It's a terrible burden to have to distinguish between
'Marxist,' 'socialist,' 'communist,' 'Bolshevik,' 'Soviet,' 'Pravda,'
and 'Stalinist'. Let me clarify. 'Marxist' is what you do in
the shower. If you have a shower, that is. And whether or
not you have a shower is not strictly relevant to whether you take a
shower or not. Whether or not you take a shower seems to have an
empirical-critical bearing on whether or not you brush your teeth.
I always recommend brushing your teeth, but I do not always recommend
using a brush. Occasionally a good egg will do, but you have to be
gentle. It also depends on whether or not you have any teeth left.
In any event, do or don't, do or don't, all the other words depend on
whose watching you. Their meaning becomes apparent in the eye of
"But what does this..."
"Ahh, you see! It all becomes clear now, doesn't it, Hemroid?
The more you think about these things, the clearer they become, doesn't
they Hammer-thigh? Hammer-thigh? Is that your KGB name?"
"No, my name is Leon."
I thought you said your name was Leszek? Oh, well. What
was I saying? Oh, yeah. So they set me free. They kick
me out! They tell me to leave. The jail was the only place
where I could get two good meals a day and an hours of sleep. So
here I am out on the street, and I'm thinking, what is freedom anyway?
Now, you must understand, I am convinced that no one will be free until
everyone is free. But what does it mean? Does it mean the
many are not free until all are free? Or does it mean that all are
not free until the many are free? Or does it mean the one frees
the many? Or the many frees the one?"
While he is talking, I am shivering; I keep thinking he is saying
'freeze' and, while carrying on this discussion about freedom, he is
still holding me captive. Every time I jerk away, he jerks me
back. Now my jacket is good and wrinkled and, I am willing to
wager, stretched to boot. I look down at my boots and, sure
enough, there sag the elbows of my jacket.
"...or that all reflect the many, or that many reflect the all, or
that the many reflect the one, or that the one reflects all, or that..."
Obviously this man has more questions in him than I have answers in
me, and I am starting to think that perhaps that jail they had him in
was a psychiatric institute and instead of being let loose, he escaped
himself into looseness.
"...and being paid. For if we are a free society, why do they
pay us, and at the same time, why do they not pay us enough?"
"Look," I say, "This is interesting, and you've given me many things
to think about, but I really must be..."
"For example, now listen to this, Lenny. We have to work for
"Yes, and talk about work..."
"But they also say we get wages for work, right?"
"Yes, and if I want to live to see another day of work, then..."
"Which essentially means that you invert the two nouns? The
statement means the same thing, no matter which way the nouns are
facing. Doesn't that follow? Yet that is not the case for
most sentences. Take this one, for example." While he is thinking
of an example, I try to tug my arm loose.
"'Bread for snails,' meaning a person will willing trade bread to
obtain snails, right? But 'snailsfor bread' means something
entirely different. It may mean the person we are speaking about
is willing to trade snails for bread, and who wouldn't be willing?
Or it may mean that the person speaking wants some snails to put on his
or her bread. How can you tell the difference? You can't,
that's ho w! And this is where communism enters into the picture."
One more tug before he begins speaking again.
"Communism explains, in the first case, that no matter who has the
wages and no matter who had the work, it is in both cases the same
person. The exploiter has the wages and the exploiter has the
work. Do you understand now, Lester? Communism ends the
epistemological problem in every sense of the word! That's the
only virtue of communism, but it is a great and wondrous virtue.
There are no epistemological problems! Don't you think
that's wonderful. In the first case, communists clearly and
succinctly identify the owners of the means of production with the
dispensers of wages. There is no confusion. In the case of
the second problem, communists have solved our dilemma by virtually
Oh, my! Maria is going to be so mad. I tug my arm
furiously, but he only tightens his grip.
"No bread, only lines. Which is great! Everyone can
understand lines! Lines on paper, lines in a mathematical problem,
lines in a drawing. Lines, lines, lines. But no bread!
Doesn't this make sense to you, Larry?"
No bread! If I do not return with the bread, Maria will have my
head. She will serve our guests buttered-head-of-Leon!
"Unable to grow the food necessary to feed our own people, we do the
next best thing: develop marvelous theories of abundance and surplus!
This is a great country," he yells out loud.
People looked around nervously, applauding his remarks.
He smiles for the first time since I've been there and raises his
hand to accept the applause. One quick yank and I am free, the one
is free, and running toward the door of the tavern.
But the idiot, the lunatic, the agitator is shouting at me.
"Wait. There's more. Consider the clothing store.
I do not stop. I am running. He is yelling louder: "You
wait in a long line and what do you find when you get up to the counter?
They only sell three sizes of trousers. That's right. Three
sizes of trousers."
I am out the door and running. I still hear his voice.
"One size is for the person who has a thirty-four inch waist.
Another size is for the person who someday will have a thirty-four inch
waist. Still another size is for the person who once had a
thirty-four inch waist."
I am seven doors up the block; I still hear him yelling.
"Oddly enough, this is the same taxonomy which contains the three
types of people. That's right. Three types of people
in all the world, and you don't need to stand in lines to meet them.
You can walk around blind for all I care. There are those who call
me 'Boris' as well as those who don't call me anything. Finally,
there are those who don't even care to call me anything. They call
me nothing at all. They call me 'shit-for-brains.' They call
me toilet-mouth. It's an epistemological problem."
I run, run, run through the town into the outskirts of our village.
Maria meets me at the door. So where's the bread? Bread!
Do you know what a line I was standing in? And do you know what I
found at the end of that line?
Maria doesn't say a word. She thinks she understands, and I do
nothing to correct her. Once again, I've saved my head.
Nevertheless, at dinner, no one has a wonderful time. There is no
bread for the borsch. There is no bread for the rhubarb or onions.
There is no bread for the bread pie. We have plain pie. I am
the unhappiest of all. Throughout the meal I head a distance voice
yelling at me, I cannot quite make out what the voice is saying,
so I have to add words myself to make it make the little bit of sense it
will eventually make when, as my grandfather use to say, horses forget
how to gallop.
"Please accept this for the brave piece of rhetoric it is, but I have
studied the problem. One day you think you have a pleasant smile
on your face when all you have is a face. It's a terrible burden.
An epistemological problem. A horrible curse. Thankfully the
soviet doctors have figured it out. Simply cease smiling..."
"Which, by the way, has been the excellent efforts of our Soviet
administrators over the last five years. It's been a five-year
plan. Well, let me tell you something: was it a good plan? I
don't know about that, but I'm pretty certain it has been well over five
"But what are years anyway. Just a capitalist illusion?"
"And beer. What does imported beer mean. When we are
standing on our own Soviet shore, even inland, imported beer means it
came from somewhere else. But when we are standing in American..."
G. David Schwartz is the former president of Seedhouse, the
online interfaith committee. Schwartz is the author of A Jewish
Appraisal of Dialogue, and coauthor, with Jacqueline Winston, of
Parables In Black and White. Currently a volunteer at Drake Hospital
in Cincinnati, Schwartz continues to write essays, and fiction. You can
reach him at