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Richard Grayson

The Best Rosh Hashanah Ever

Somebody like Pete Hamill or Norman Podhoretz or Gloria Steinem once observed that one of the longest journeys in the world is the trip from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I made that trip last Rosh Hashanah on the D train, which is a very good train as far as they go. It was one of the last really warm days of the summer and I dreaded staying home doing nothing but playing solitaire or watching soap operas.

Actually, I used to be a soap opera addict, and I still get the urge to turn them on when Iím at home during the day. My friend Willie and I used to rush home from Meyer Levin Junior High School to catch the last fifteen minutes of Another World almost every day. The best actress on the program played Aunt Liz, and I truly hated her. The last time I saw Willie, he told me a new actress was playing Aunt Liz now and sheís not half as evil.

During the 1964 Worldís Fair, Willie and I were waiting to get into the Johnson & Johnson pavilion when we were approached by this guy from some little jerkwater religion whose name I donít remember. The man was trying to convert people, and when he found out we were Jewish, he went into a long harangue about Jews having animal sacrifices. I donít remember much of what he said. I wanted to get Willie out of there. Hell, he hadnít had his bar mitzvah at that point and in another ten minutes he would have converted. So I pulled Willie from the line and told him I needed to pee really badly. As we walked away, the man kept yelling at us, "But whereís the blood, fellas? Whereís the blood?"

When we moved to Mill Basin, my parents joined a synagogue, the Flatbush Park Jewish Center. It was "modern Orthodox," and I think we belonged because their friends did since we certainly werenít Orthodox. Temple Sholom, the Conservative shul, was just a few blocks away but that might have been better. I never knew I could hate school so much until I went to Hebrew school at Flatbush Park. And on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Mom and Dad made me wear a suit and tie for services where all that constant jumping up and down made me crazy.

The last time I dressed up for the High Holy Days was in September 1966. That was also the same month I started in psychoanalysis because of my anxiety attacks. If you remember, that was the time when Governor Rockefeller had all those cute commercials for his reelection. He could afford it, I guess. One of them was about a talking fish. Not that Iím saying those commercials had any connection with my seeing a shrink; it was just a coincidence. Dr. Weinberg had his office in his big mansion on Albemarle Road, just off Coney Island Avenue. I took the D train to Church Avenue to get there when I didnít have to take a taxicab. Dr. Weinbergís house smelled of jasmine. When Arlene gives me a cup of jasmine tea, I remember Dr. Weinberg.

The year before that, I enrolled as a sophomore at The Benton School, which catered to upper-middle class Jews. Nearly everyone at the school lived in the city, and it was a long trip for me from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side, but I always arrived early, even in the winter. Sometimes I got there before the registrar, Mrs. Mogg, who opened up the school. It got very cold in the mornings and Iíd have to stay in a telephone booth. Incidentally, on all of Central Park West, I never found a telephone that worked.

The principal of The Benton School, an Englishman who occasionally took a nip of brandy for the malaria he contracted when he was a spy in the First World War, told me on that first day that he would assign an older student to look after me for a while. He told me not to get too dependent on this one student. The studentís name was Peter. His stepfather was the producer of documentaries Iíd seen on CBS News.


By the time I was a high school senior, we had stopped going to synagogue. By then, though, I wasnít going out much at all. At first Mom and Dad freaked out when Iíd wear jeans and sneakers on the High Holy Days instead of getting dressed up, even if we werenít going to shul. They told me they didnít care what our Jewish neighbors thought, that they were worried about the Catholic families on the block.

"If they see you donít respect your own holiday," Mom said, "how can they respect you?"

I just shrugged and agreed, saying, "Yeah, I guess theyíll stop saluting me."



Quite a while after that, I put an ad in The Village Voice. I donít remember it word for word, but it was good, like a prose poem. I asked for a friendly guy or girl to share a trip around New England. At the time I was trying to get over my agroraphobia. I got a ton of replies, mostly from weirdoes or old people. When I read Erikís letter, I knew he was the right one.

First Erik and I went to New Haven. I didnít like Yale, probably because it wasnít what I expected. I expected some elegance. All I got was noise and confusion. Sometimes I think I should have been born in the nineteenth century. Iím a Victorian at heart.



I heard a cute story about my little next-door neighborís first day in nursery school. The teacher put up one finger and asked the kid what it was, and the kid answered, "One." Then the teacher held up two fingers and asked what it was. The kid answered, "Peace."



Last Rosh Hashanah was the fifth time that I had gone into Manhattan that year. Once I went to a dental laboratory to pick out a shade for my capped tooth, the one I broke in the obstacle race in Willieís basement when we were in eighth grade. Once I went to visit a friend who worked at the Barnes and Noble textbook store. Twice I went to the Village, to Washington Square. Thatís also where I was heading last Rosh Hashanah.

By then, my parents had given up even the pretense of pretending we observed the High Holy Days. My father went out on Rosh Hashanah morning to play tennis with his business partner Frank Amatuzzio.


Did you ever notice that the West Fourth Street station of the IND has entrances on Sixth Avenue, West Eighth Street and Waverly Place, but no entrance on West Fourth Street? Mansarde loves to hear about things like that. Sheís my pen-pal in Madison, Wisconsin. Her real name is Mary, but she calls herself Mansarde because her last name is Garrett, and mansarde is French for "garret." Before he went out to play tennis, my father brought in the mail, and I got this letter from Mansarde.

Dear Richie,

This has been a momentous day, and I celebrate it with this letter. Two of my friends and I (hard core hoodlums all) were invited to leave French class for the next two weeks. The teacher thought she was threatening us, be we plan to take her up on it. We were accused of "disrupting the class, disrespectful behavior, inattention" blah blah blah. What really happened was that I questioned her translations and teachings, Pat broke into laughter when asked to translate, and Cris stuck up for us. Cris is overly sensitive and almost broke into tears under the tongue-lashing she received.

Speaking of trouble, there have been four or five fire bombings around the University. They bombed the wrong side of the gymnasium so that the only thing that remained unscathed was the ROTC offices. Although these people are rather inept, I sympathize with them. Iíd really like to burn down West High first, tho, and then the University. I donít dare say that at home.

Iíd like to grow all my own foods, grind the grain, dye and weave the cloth, use the sun and wind for power: in short, be more self-sufficient. Speaking of handicrafts (writing of them, actually), Cris and I are selling macramť belts at a local store. I made a blue belt for you, but I either measured wrong or it shrank in the dye, because it came out three inches too short (26"). So I sold it to a kid. But abandon not hope, Iíll try again, Iíll knot be defeated.

Dr. Conigliaro has been playing with my hair again. Heís always telling me what a good wife Iíll make some lucky man. Yesterday he was muttering about how heíd like to Ďget first crackí at me.

The Cream record is ending, so so long for now.



It was the year before, September of 1968, that I had a complete nervous breakdown. I didnít sleep for three nights in a row and I fainted. I had chills and nausea for hours. I shook and shook and shook. I couldnít do anything; I couldnít leave my house, which meant I was excused from dressing up for the High Holidays.

I was even scared to go down to the basement. It was as though my nerves were sticking out, as though my flesh had been torn away. It lasted for months. My pediatrician prescribed Librium and hot baths. My shrink prescribed Triavil and group therapy.


I was almost totally recovered by last Rosh Hashanah. I bought a magazine Ė I believe it was Ramparts Ė and strolled over to Washington Square to sit in the sun by the fountain. Next to me, perched on one of the pedestals, was a young kid, maybe sixteen. His dark brown hair fluttered over his eyes. He was wearing an old work shirt like I was, but he had on black dungarees with the name "Diann" written vertically down the right leg with white paint. He had on very abused brown loafers, no socks. (I was wearing black Keds.) He had a large nose, the kind that kids around that age get when their noses grow faster than the rest of them. He was squinting himself, at the whole scene, as if he were reviewing it for a magazine. Outasight. He looked a little like Peter.


I was fourteen, Peter was sixteen, and we were in the bathroom of his East Side apartment. I started to feel a bit funny, as though I were being torn apart from myself, and pulled away, but Peter drew me closer. "Nothingís happening," I heard myself say. Soon enough, though, persistence paid off and I gasped, "Christ!" Like a meteor being drawn to earth by gravity, I fell toward Peterís long smooth body and exploded. After about a century, Peter smiled and said, "Great. But listen, could you try and be a little neater next time, huh?"

Peterís mother committed suicide last year. It made page three of the Post. I thought of sending a sympathy card but decided against it.


A bearded man in his forties came over to the kid in Washington Square and started asking him all kinds of questions. From time to time, I could make out snatches of the conversation. The kid said he was in from Minnesota to be at his motherís wedding.

"What if your new stepfather takes a liking to you? You know what I mean?" asked the dirty old man.

"Iím not going to live with my stepfather," the kid announced. "Iím staying with my aunt at her motel in Hibbing." He spoke with a very broad A.

The man started talking about himself: he was a science fiction writer and he wanted the kid to come up to his nearby studio to see his collection of flying saucer photos. By this time, the kid kept looking over to me for something, and the man noticed this.

"Are you his boyfriend?" the bearded man asked me.

I smiled, looked at the kid, who nodded, and I said, "Yes. Yes, I am. And if youíll please leave us alone."

The man snapped his fingers like a movie villain so that we almost cracked up, and he moved on to the next young boy.

"Thanks," the kid said. "He was getting to be a drag."

"You donít know how to handle these dirty old men," I said. "But I guess you donít get much of that sort of thing in Minnesota."

He brightened tremendously and said, "You believed that story? I made the whole thing up. Iím from Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights."

Dumbfounded, I could only manage to say, "Iím from Brooklyn, too." We talked for a while. I told him my name.

He was Jack Krantz, born in Tennessee, but moved her when he was a baby. His father was a surgeon, his mother a pop artist. He was fifteen and went to Poly Prep. He was waiting for his seventeen-year-old sister to get out of her yoga class.


I didnít get much out of group therapy, mostly because I was more interested in the other patients than I was in myself. One girl was a heroin addict who was going cold turkey, and she was awfully fidgety. One girl was having two love affairs at once: she liked both guys and it became a hassle after a while. One guy stabbed his mother. He lived next door to Dr. Weinberg, and I guess the good doctor took him on as a favor to his neighbors. One girl was pregnant and not married. She had been molested by her grandfather and told some of the greatest jokes Iíve ever heard. I never did find out what was the matter with the last guy, mainly because he never said anything. Oh, sometimes Dr. Weinberg would try and ask him something, but he always said, "Talking makes me nervous." Which is the opposite of me. I can go on and on, and I usually do.


Jackís sister was named Arlene. He introduced me to her when she arrived, and they invited me to wander around the Village with them. Arlene was blonde, with freckles: skinny but really well-built. She was very bright. I inferred this right off, when we were eating burgers at The Cookery and Arlene asked me what I majored in at Brooklyn College. I told her I wasnít sure but that last time Iíd been an English major. "Really?" she said. "What regiment?" I think it was then that I started to fall in love with Arlene.


It was the best Rosh Hashanah ever. The three of us watching the kooks and the tourists, shopped in all the stores (but only bought some incense sticks at Azusa), had bad pizza for dinner (which I paid for, happily), and generally joked around. We were on West Eighth Street, just in front of Orange Julius, when I looked at my watch and saw how late it was.

"Gee, you guys," I told them. "Itís been great, but I really have to get going." I swallowed and said, "Hey, do you mind if I call you?"

"Our numberís in the book," Arlene answered. "Mrs. Sheera Krantz. Nineteen Grace Court." She gave my shoulder a squeeze. "See you soon."

I didnít sleep at all that night.


Erik and I visited his great-aunt in Boston. His aunt was an old maiden lady who would be played by Margaret Rutherford if they ever made a movie about her. Her name was Shifra, and she didnít mind my calling her by her first name despite her being so old. She was born in Russia but grew up in Brooklyn before moving to Boston. We got to discussing different cities and their names. Shifra told us how to spell Chicago: "Chicken in the car, car wonít go, thatís how you spell Chicago." She also recited a poem from her childhood:

I wonít go to Macyís any more, more, more.

Thereís a big fat policeman at the door, door, door.

Heíll squeeze you like a lemon,

A kalatchgazolenemon.

No, I wonít go to Macyís anymore.

Arlene says the poem would make a good ad for A&S.


I not only spent Rosh Hashanah with Jack and Arlene, but Yom Kippur, too. After great difficulty, I found their apartment in Brooklyn Heights, and their mother made us grilled cheese sandwiches. They were open sandwiches, with tomatoes, and were very good. Then we went back to the Village, but I guess you canít go home again, and it wasnít as much fun as Yom Kippur as it was the time before. But we did a lot of things that fall. I would wait for Arlene when she came out of school (Packer Collegiate) and we would go to Coney Island or the Cloisters or Bethesda Fountain, sometimes with Jack, sometimes just the two of us. By November Ė by the time the Mets won the Series and Mayor Lindsay got reelected Ė Arlene was my girl.


My father likes to tell the story of the first time I ate Chinese food. My mother asked me how I liked the chow mein. I said, "I liked the chow but not the mein." When I was a baby I had a stuffed lamb that I called Lambie Pie. There was a music box inside the lamb. When you wound it up, it played "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Like I showed Arlene, it still works.


Jack and Dr. and Mrs. Krantz had gone out to visit Mrs. Krantzís grandmother, who was about a zillion years old. Arlene and I were in her house, watching The Forsyte Saga. It was the episode in which Soames rapes Irene. You wouldnít expect it, but Arlene and I made love after the show. I felt so secure inside of her that I never wanted to leave. To prolong things, I thought of the starving Biafran children. I came anyway, of course. A few minutes after it was over and Arlene lit a Marlboro, I began to feel hungrier than I ever did in my life. I drank a whole quart of her motherís skim milk and ate seven slices of toast with Trappist sherry and port jelly. An hour later, I threw it all up on the Clark Street subway tracks.


You know what I like most about Arlene? Her veins. She has great veins up and down her arms, but the most beautiful purple ones flow through her breasts. They remind me of the canals of Mars.

The movies that Arlene and I have really liked lately all have definite endings: Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Medium Cool. Itís almost Rosh Hashanah again, and I canít think up an ending. Itís like a delicatessen I know in Rockaway with mirrors on each wall. You sit there eating your Hebrew National frank with sauerkraut and mustard and you look over and see your reflection, and then your reflection in your reflection, and so on. Thereís a guy I know at school, kind of a jerk. Every time I see him, he tells me that tomorrowís the end of the world. One of these days heís going to be right.

Richard Grayson has published fiction and nonfiction at McSweeney's, Pindeldyboz, Small Spiral Notebook, Fiction Warehouse, Yankee Pot Roast, FRiGG, and other webzines.  Five of his online stories were selected as storySouth's "Notable Stories of 2004," and one of them was a finalist for the Million Writers Award.

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