Friday, October 31, 2008

The Cigarette Box

Twenty-two seniors are still in limbo. They have not made a decision about life after high school. Most are afraid of move away from Bed-Stuy, East New York, and Brownsville, terrified to leave their neighborhoods. Proud of their “ghetto fabulous” ways they know they’d feel like a fish out of water in a place like Rochester, New York. A few are dieing to get away from home, the constant noise outside their bedroom window, the shoot- outs that rob them of their sleep. The yelling and constant arguing. A rural college in New Hampshire looks like paradise. But no one wants you when you score 650 on the SAT.
I have called Carla in because she is one of them.
“I think I’ll join the Marines. A recruiter came over to my house last Saturday. He
is just waiting to see if I pass English for the year, but once I have my high school diploma, I am in.”
“Carla, what if you have to go to Iraq?”
“Well, I do what I have to do. I am not afraid.”
I look at this tomboyish seventeen- year- old Jamaican girl in front of me. She is still sporting her elegant up hairdo from Friday nights prom.
“I would hate to find your name listed among the war casualties in The New York Times. Carla Rigby, age nineteen, from Brooklyn New York, killed in action.”
Carla is not impressed. I have been her guidance counselor for almost four years. She appreciated the referral to Planned Parenthood I gave her in the 9th grade when she needed to get a pregnancy test without her grandmother finding out. A few times each week she stops by my office to ask for a Band Aid, a feminine pad, calculator or candy when she is in serious need of a sugar fix. Maybe she sees me as just another old person, trying to spoil her fun and tell her how to run her life. Someone too timid to embark on a daring adventure. Besides I have no idea how hard her life is. The four foster children her grandmother has taken in to help make ends meet. Her little brother and his sickle cell anemia, the older brother in Rikers. Carla does not want to be a burden. She wants to pull her own weight.
I am losing this battle. Seventeen- year- olds know everything, have been everywhere, done everything or at least they act that way. It’s time to pull out my last weapon. I walk
over to my desk; push aside the disciplinary reports, cut slips, Kit Kat bar wrappers, and To Do List for my personal life to recover a little cherry wood box. I take the box, carry it like a precious jewel and hand it to Carla.
“I want to show you something.”
“What’s that? An old wooden box?”
“Notice anything special?”
“Looks like someone made it. There’s a rose engraved, and the letters H and S. What is it Ms. S.?”
“H. S. are my father’s initials. This is a cigarette box he made when he was a prisoner of war”.
“What war?”
“A war, a long time ago. You learned about it in 10th grade when Mr. Salerno taught you about the Second World War in Global Studies.”
“What happened to your Dad?”
“He was 17 just like you and felt very patriotic. So he volunteered to join Hitler’s army. Did well in the first year as a gunner. They won a couple of battles on the Western front, occupied Belgium, then France. I am sure he felt invincible. Two years later he found himself fighting in Russia and his luck ran out. His unit was hit by grenades. He was happy to be alive, but he lost his leg.”
“What happened?”
Carla stops fidgeting in her chair and gives me her undivided attention.
“Well in peace time they might have been able to save his leg, but not during the war. There were too many men dead and wounded, too few doctors and medical supplies. They had to amputate his leg and he, nineteen years old, spent the following two years as a prisoner of war.”
Carla is quiet. Her big brown eyes have lost their defiant stance and are filled with concern.
“And that is why, Carla, I cannot support your decision to join the military. Go to a community college, keep up your grades, you might be able to switch to a state college or another four year college. Then when you’ve gotten your degree and you’re a little older and wiser, rethink your idea about signing up with the Marines. You can serve your country in other ways and still make your community proud.”
We are interrupted by the piercing sound of the bell. Carla has to make it up to the seventh floor to her English class.
“Thank you Ms. S. for sharing something from your personal life.”
“Thanks for listening.”

I have three minutes before a group of freshmen is coming in. A lot of “He said - She said”, gossip, backstabbing behavior and the threat of fights. So- and- so said she’ll bring her cousins up here to jump me. Regular stuff. I push the jumble of papers on my desk away and return the box to its place of honor. I close the lid. The sorrow of thousands of young men put to rest again.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Hans in Luck

My love for German food and the German language returned. Most Thursdays after therapy, I strolled down the three blocks of Sauerkraut Boulevard/ East 86th Street. Yorkville in the early 80s, before the onslaught of PC Richards, Victoria’s Secret, and Footlocker mega stores had the flavor of a German neighborhood. Restaurants, named Heidelberg, Ideal, and Café Geiger, served Jägerschnitzel, Sauerbraten, and excellent draught beer. Elk’s Candy carried the best marzipan this side of the Atlantic. In the evenings, zither and accordion players entertained the crowd. Before I started my long haul back to TriBeCa, I always treated myself to Kaffee,und Kuchen, Germany’s version of High Tea, at Kleine Konditorei. Their rich Black Forest tart, almost as good as my mother’s, never failed to improve my mood.
In Germany, being German was an ordeal, a full time job. Everyday we dealt with our parents and grandparents’ guilt, the heavy load we had inherited. On American TV, my compatriots were Nazis, deranged psychiatrists, or Bavarians in Lederhosen. They were barking orders, or slapping their legs doing the Schuhplattler dance. I was no longer troubled or insulted by it. Here in New York, at Kleine Konditorei, I shamelessly indulged in my Germaness.
Kleine Konditorei, proud of its home cooking and gut bürgerlich ambiance, kept the Teutonic theme under control. No antlers on the wall, no decorative steins, or yodeling over the sound system, just immaculately clean windows and floors, red fabric chairs and sofas, starched white linen tablecloths, and fine china. New York offered a multitude of restaurant experiences, but it did not have a coffee house culture like European cities. Kleine Konditorei, a pitiable substitute for Berlin’s Café Einstein was the next best thing. I could linger for hours in a comfortable upholstered chair over a Kännchen Kaffee without being harassed by the wait staff to place another order every twenty minutes.
Anita, the heavyset Viennese waitress, was polishing the doorknob with a table napkin as I made my way in.
“Schönen guten Tag,” she chirped.
“Danke, ebenso,” I answered.
Ogling the cakes and pies behind the counter, I made my way to my favorite table. From my vantage point, I could scrutinize most of the inside tables as well as the outside street action. Across from me, three old ladies with hairdos resembling corrugated sheet metal, sat with gigantic portions of tort. They spoke a strange mixture of German and English. “Der Mohnkuchen is fantastic. So lecker! Please pass mir die milk und das Sweet & Low.”
I considered the special attributes of German Kaffee und Kuchen. Brewed with less Arabica beans, German coffee was thinner than Italian espresso, but superior to the dishwater that passed for American coffee. Americans never got torts right. Just like their saccharine smiles, their pastries were unbearably sweet. German pastries, like life, were both sweet and tart. As I sank my teeth into the scrumptious piece of Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte, a superb concoction of cherry sauce, flour, cream, eggs, chocolate, and Kirsch brandy, I mocked the accent I heard all around me: “Ziss Kriempuff is fäbuluss.”
As I licked my spoon I thought about my therapist’s question an hour ago: “Have you ever been with an older man?” and how I had rebuffed Vivian Deutsch: “No way. An older guy and me? You won’t see that happen any time soon.” Vivien had been adamant: “You ought to give it a try. Allow yourself to be attracted to a good kind man. A man with the qualities of a good father. It should help you move from romantic love and a fixation on sex, to sustained attachment.”
Maybe she had a point. Even Freud had called romantic love “the overestimation of the romantic object.”
As I surveyed the room, a man with the handsome look of an old-time matinee idol caught my eye. His Basque cap, silver unruly hair sticking out from underneath, and red scarf tied around his neck gave him a bohemian flair. He took cautious measured steps, and then rested on his cane until Anita came to his rescue. She led him to a table set for a large group of people, took his coat and helped him into his seat.
“Who is that?” I asked when she passed by.
“Hans Glück. He’s a writer. Part of the Stammtisch. A group of old Jewish folks who meet here every Thursday. They all speak German.”
“You are kidding?”
“No. They’ve been coming here for the past thirty-five years. No one wants to wait on them. They sit forever and don’t eat much. Terrible tippers.”
I decided to stay and ordered a brandy. As I savored my Asbach, I eavesdropped on the discussion at their table. My ears perked up when I heard them talk about Thomas Bernhard’s latest book. One man with an Austrian accent didn’t like Bernhard: “How can he call Salzburg, his hometown, a terminal disease?” Hans Glück didn’t like my favorite writer either. “Who does he think he is? James Joyce? Unreadable, this relentless, repetitive stuff.”
How could he not like Bernhard? In my canon of western literature, next to Musil and Beckett, Bernhard was the greatest writer of our century. No one else’s writing was so personal and uncompromising. Hans Glück was ignorant. How would he justify his position? I strained to listen. Against my better judgment and annoyance, I fell in love with the way he spoke. Like a bourgeois playboy in the final days of the Habsburg monarchy, his was a pure, upper class, turn-of-the-nineteenth-century German, untainted by any Anglicism. In an instant he transported me to an Arthur Schnitzler novel. Fortified by my third brandy, I asked Anita to introduce me. She did not waste time.
“Liebe Stammtischgäste, you have to meet Anna. She’s from the Rhineland, but she studied in Berlin.”
“Oh Berlin, my heart aches for you,” Hans Glück said.
Now I had a chance to study him close-up. He had bushy, unruly eyebrows, and curious pale blue eyes. His right eye had a mind of its own and made him look almost cross-eyed. The enormous dark circles under his eyes held a lot of sorrow. But his lips were full and sensual. Somewhat melancholic. He must have been a good kisser. As if he had been able to guess my thoughts, he turned to me, took my hand and kissed it gently. “Junges Fraülein, we must get to know each other. I’m quite lonely these days. Come visit me,” he pleaded. Then he rummaged through his pants pocket and produced a business card. Hans Glück, Writer, it said.

Read the rest of the story in : Love After 70, Tosteson, Pelletier, Krivchenia Edit.,
Wising Up Press, Decatur, Georgia 2008