Cities of Lost Children

I’ve been thinking a lot about Nathan, my father’s father. I often do when pretty weather makes me regret my solitude.

Nathan was a survivor and he never let you forget it. He also didn’t like to think of himself that way.

He was born in Poland to a determined woman with a schnorrer of a husband. That Yiddish word isn’t in the kind of rotation that other ones are–schmuck, for one. But it should be because schnorrers are everywhere. They’re hustlers who aren’t good at hustling, people (men mostly) who drain your resources without profiting from them. They’re what my grandmother Basha, my grandfather’s wife, called losahs without their mezuzahs.

She was a pissah, that one. Mean, judgmental, super clever.

When my grandfather was alive we didn’t exactly get on because he was funny about women, especially big blondes. When his mother arrived in America with him and his little sister, his father already had found a better-off wife, and here was my great-grandmother not speaking English with nowhere to live, nothing in her pocket. But with two small children in tow she wasn’t about to fall on her face, not while she was young and had spring in her step. So she started going by Mary Banks and turning tricks and well–

My grandfather didn’t understand shall-we-say normal sexual boundaries.

Any sexual boundaries.

I was afraid of Nathan. He’d lived on the streets on and off starting when he was 11. His mother was running her own brothel in Salem, Mass, by then, and she’d come to resent all men. When her growing boy tried to nosh between meals, she even put a lock on the refrigerator. He tried to pick it once, and she called the police who took him in for a full day before realizing it was his own mother who’d turned him in. When he told the story later, he’d say he liked jail. “Three squares a day.”

You could say all this made him a little wary of close and personal relationships. Dangerously broken, even.

But he’s been gone for 17 years, and I realize I’m more like him than anyone else in my father’s line. Nathan could connect with anybody for a finite period of time. He could find fun anywhere and was delighted with everything and everybody. At the end of his life he was learning Spanish to better communicate with the Dominicans who’d moved on the block.

And he saw through bullshit and it wore him down. When push came to shove you’d find him alone at a party, sitting outside with one of his three cigarettes a day, the whole human tapestry easier to take from a distance.

He always slept with prostitutes but not in an angry way. I get the sense he appreciated their brass tacks, was pals with them. Maybe visiting some ghost of his ma, Freud be damned.

Freud who? Do I know his mishpucha?

Sometimes he went by the last name of Rossi and word was he had low-level dealings with the mob. He made more money than made sense for a guy who worked janitorial.

He was what we used to call in the mix.

Before my grandmother got sick, you’d see the two of them all over town, chatting up everyone in their path. They lived in Lawrence, Mass, once one of the biggest mill towns around, ranked one of the worst American cities when I was coming up. Crime, drugs, unemployment, murder, you name it.

But my grandfather didn’t want to move to Florida or Arizona. Somewhere you sloughed off respectable older Jews.

He wanted to stay in the mix.

Sometimes he left my grandmother at home and even when he was in his 80s none of us wondered what he was up to. Not even when he was in his 90s.

We knew.

After he died, I was at his house going through his things and a working girl showed up. She was a tough number, in really bad shape. Strung out with eyes like a lemur. Like a hawk. Her purse bigger than her waist and her hand trembling as she gestured with her smokes.

“Where’s Nathan?” she said. “He owes me money.”

My grandfather would’ve wanted me to pay her, but even more than his child I was Rubenfire’s–Rubenfire being my great-grandmother’s original last name and the one I always call her. She never would have respected a working girl who didn’t demand payment at the time of service rendered. She never would bought this no-good nafka’s line.

So I closed the door.

And today it’s nice out and I’m thinking of my grandfather who knew everyone in his neighborhood–the shopkeeps, the cops, the crooks. The pretty girls around the way and the older ladies who kept schnapps on the sideboard. My grandather never met a person he couldn’t charm.

Nor a person he couldn’t read.

He sang all the time and danced all the time, a little soft-shoe, a shuffle off to Buffalo. Sometimes in the middle of a conversation he’d stand on his head, even his hands, and he played the violin beautifully–for money when he was a kid.

On a pretty day like today he’d have been off like a shot, exploring everything and everybody, jiving with the bums, the bankers, the birds. All as one, all at once.

And he would’ve been lonely.

I wish today as I sit down to write another chapter in my family’s story that I could hug him as I never dared when he was alive. I wish I could reach through time without inflicting harm on myself or him or anyone else in my family.

The last photo taken of my grandpa and me.

I wish I could ask him for help, for a roadmap of where to go and how to be. I’m so lost in the disenchanted forest of my book and he would have shook his head and let out a big ole JESUS in his trademark falsetto, that cry he always made at schul, at my shiksa mother’s get-togethers, anywhere he saw bullshit abounding. After that he would have suggested we go for a walk. Maybe some thrifting, nu?

I’ve always been a smart kid, a survivor just like him, and I’ve always known who not to trust. He was filled with light, but he also was filled with a heavy, hot self-pity that could lead G-d knows where. I tried not to be alone with him.

But I know he loved me and loves me still.

And I know exactly the strain of loneliness he carried.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy