Friday, March 18, 2005

Life In Shadows

The new exhibit opening this Sunday at the Spertus museum (where I work) is entitled, Life in Shadows: Hidden Children and the Holocaust. The day before I left for my vacation to the holy land (I'm talking about Florida) I had the opportunity to walk through the show in its final phase of preparation.

My Boss encouraged me to go and I balked. It was a sunny day. A nice day. Moreover, I was terrified to go in. Last week, we got a debriefing from the museum director about the show and related programing. "When people ask what age this exhibit is appropriate for" she said " we tell them about 10 and up for Jewish children, Middle School and up for non-Jews."

And there you have it.

Growing up in Jewish day school we were started young. Every year on Yom Ha Shoa (Day of Holocaust remembrance), the whole school was herded into the chapel where we watched videos of the most grisly, graphic death camp footage. After one such viewing in 7th grade, I was fully unable to sleep for an entire month. My poor mother had to sit with me at the edge of my bed smoothing the blankets around my legs for an hour everynight alternating between soothing small talk and impotent attempts at explaining all this to her petrified young daughter. I learned to avoid holocaust memorials, museums and exhibits. On class field trips, I begged to be permitted to wait in the lobby. Once, a teacher forced me to enter, saying I had to see it. I defied her by putting my coat over my head and crying in the steamy fog of my hot breath in the nylon tent over my face. My mother assured me that it was ok. That I would deal with it when I was ready.

12 years later, it occures to me that I'm too ready.

Passing through the threshold of the glass doors, I immediately wished I wasn't alone. I wanted a hand to hold in silence. Funnily enough, I wasn't feeling picky. I would have settled for someone who, in words unspoken, simply understood what all this meant to me (was forced to mean to me), or someone who, moving along side me, was quietly learning, or trying to learn what it meant.

I remember clearly one particular night when Jorge and I were up drinking late. We had been talking about history or identity or something and is wont to happen when he's drunk, he went off on a rampage. "What Holocaust, Abby? Whose Holocaust, Abby?" He sputtered scooping at the air with with his arms, the smoke from his cigarette tracing angry question marks over the table.

I knew he was right. And I felt ashamed. How did jews obtain exclusive rights to "The" Holocaust? The next day, Jorge apologized for being a dick but since then I've tried to qualify the term. I keep trying different things but none seem to sound right. "The Nazi Holocaust", "The Jewish Holocaust" (uh, which one?), "The 20th Century European Holocaust."

Pretty much the first thing non-jews know about jews is that they aren't supposed to eat pork. The next thing they know is that we live in the shadow of this aspect of our history. It's very hard to explain to people. One of the books I unpacked in the store that we ordered to accompany the exhibit was a giant tome. About 2000 pages thick, on the order of a massive English dictionary, it was a dossier of Jewish French children who went missing in the war. What the fuck was this book really I had to wonder, flipping through it tearily. Is this a coffee table book? If it is, can anyone understand how fucked up this makes a person?

As poets have well documented, death is intimately hinged to the deepest, desperate kind of arousal. There is nothing quite like a reminder of our mortality to drive us to lovemaking, late night whispering, the need-whatever the cost- not to feel alone.

I have only ever had one Jewish boyfriend. That was years ago, in college. He was barely Jewish really; his family had a christmas tree. Jewish only in his classic neuroticism, his affection for woody allen, jazz music, New York city, but also lineage. Jewish not because of what he did but because of what he was. I remember one night when we lay awake in bed, in the dark, sharing our family holocaust stories. I told him how my grandmother moved here from Frankfurt at the age of three because back in the thirties, my great grandfather had a strange premonition. He left everything he knew and moved his wife and 5 daughters over seas to small town Ohio. His family in Germany thought he was crazy. A decade later, they were all dead.

J___'s grandfather had been a wealthy dutchman who lost everything in the war. Moving to the states penniless, he changed his name so as to appear less Jewish. J__, being an only child, bears this family name as a middle name.

I also remember one night when we were both indescribably depressed. He and my housemate had been in a bad car accident earlier in the day and death was too much on his mind for us to enjoy the party we were at. We went back to his house and in complete silence he drew us a bath. He put on some music, a piece I can't remember, I just remember him telling me it had been composed in a nazi death camp. In the bathroom was a small blue neon light, that made the room glow eerily. In silence, we took off our clothes and climbed into the hot blue water, bringing a bottle of whiskey with us. In silence, we sat in the the darkness, the blue glow and the music and the whiskey and the weight.

I have never told anyone about this. I don't think. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. He understood nothing about me. But there was something he could understand. We could understand. I loved him very much for reasons like this, reasons that shouldn't matter but do.

I thought about all this as I moved through the show. As predicted, I shed many tears absorbing the texts and looking at the relics: worn childrens boots a three year old wore at the time of his camp's liberation, an olive green wristwatch given to one terrified little boy by his older brother who promised to come back and claim it in two weeks but never did, the rosaries and peasent blouses kids in hiding used to disguise themselves, photographs of tiny tattood arms.

Truly, identity is a project, one that takes many hands. What Nazi Germany may have started, we are constantly finishing. Over and Over. It's oppressive.

I'm a cry baby and a Jew.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Robbins Eggs and Other Little Blues

I put down Mark Dehry's Pyrotechnic Insanitarium.
After plowing through 60 pages straight without so much as glancing up, just picking up my ears every now and then wondering if my phone would ring, I realized I'd been curled so tightly in my reading chair that my legs were full of pain. Odd how a book published only six years ago already seems such a quaint relic. All that rhapsodic late '90s culture jamming and millenial hysteria...by now we've already begun to make peace...

I pulled open a drawer and fished for some little blue sleeping pills. I thought the supply was depleted but I unearthed half a sheet of foil backed drug store babies. Blues, in a ideal world of capping off a very unideal night, should mean valiums but Im hardly so lucky. For a fleeting instant the indefatigable adolescent urge to eat them all passed through my mind. A joke that would ultimately accomplish nothing more than making me sleep way too late tommorrow and socking my tender liver with a taxing all nighter of it's own.

The little blues have been a constant buddy for as long as I can remember but in the last few months have been kind of like a long-distance friend with whom, fortunately, I've been too busy to keep in touch. Tonight just seemed like one of those bummer nights, the kind that at some point, you just have to kiss on the forhead and walk away from, padding sock-footed down a hall of groggy bliss.

I had some trouble with the pull tab, snarky little gesture at perforation, since my wrist, it seems, has not fully healed from my bike accident weeks ago. This is a concern that hovers at the periphery of my very un-medically insured mind, one I shove away with the occasional moment of lamely self-administered joint massage and reminders not to give in to hypochodriacal fretting.

As I shook the little blues into my palm, one bounced out and landed in the folds of my sweatshirted lap. In that moment, I was assailed by a very ancient memory.

Years and years ago, Ari's family lived out in Ypsilanti on little bit of property. We must have been in Kindergarden and sometimes I'd go over there to play. His mom drove a maroon dodge minivan. The outside was maroon and so was the inside. Everyone has one of these cars in her memory. I can see and feel the dark maroon dot patternation in the upolstory, the soothing constancy of the maroom vinyl steering wheel to match.

It was a sunny day and we played in the yard that might have been more acerage than yard but I can't remember. Traipsing around, we stumbled upon a broken robbin's egg lying on the ground. A black-flecked broken little bit of blue. The inside of the shell was white, crusted with a bit of sallow albumen or some other appropriately eggish substance, mildly discomfitting when observed out in nature rather than the kitchen. We bent down on our scabby knees to inspect it, fully aware that it was an empty shell that had at some point in time housed a living, or once living creature.

Nature is, of course, miraculous, especially to five year olds but I was a little grossed out. Ari was decidely more enthusiastic. What else would you expect from a boy who used to coat his fingers with elmers glue and then peel it off tortuously infront of squealing girls all the while exclaiming "I'm Queen Frosteen!". Years later, when our fifth grade class incubated, hatched and raised baby quails as a science project, he figured prominently in the vociferous little-boy lobby for access to the eggs that failed to hatch. Our teacher acquiesced and between the cracks of my fingers I glanced nervously down the rectangular table as they peeled back the shells on raggedy pieces of brown paper towling and prodded at the sticky, still born chicks, poking their tiny eye balls with pencils.

I went down to the kitchen and finished the whiskey. Tightening my sweater against the draft, I sat down and waited for the pills to explore my circulatory system, sending out runners in reconnaisance mission Cozy. Slightly more attuned than usual to the constant hum of cars passing outside the window on 55, I'm still sitting and waiting, thinking about that robbin's egg and all my other little blues...

What Happens to the Dream (Vacation) Deferred?

Emilio and I spent a good week or so infront of his computer everynight interloping between three open internet windows: weather.com, Ata.com and cheap tickets.com. Plainly, we decided we would kill ourselves if we didn't go on vacation. With no money, weak adventuring spirit, and terminal inability to follow through with any plans we weren't getting far.

At a certain point it occured to me that obsessivly researching vacations had in some warped way, become vacation for us. "Isn't this just symptomatic of the condition in which we live?" I mourned in exasperation. All we want is a little beach, a little sunshine...is that asking for too much?

Loopy from the winter doldrum desperation, neck-kinking screen staring, and soul crushing money worrying, we decided the most fruitful way to proceed with our dreaming and scheming would be to smoke some pot and write a book. Whic brings us to:

Floridian Somnambulist Death March
(A Vacation Adventure)
By
Abbyg. and Emilio

A tale in which two desperate characters (uh, Abbyg. and Emilio) forced to forgo sleep accomodations on vacation due to lack of funds, embark on a sleepwalking crime spree through the state of Florida.

The book has been "printed" and I am happy to send you a copy. Just email me (sweetabbyg@yahoo.com)

As a post-script, it looks like we will both be getting our vacations afterall. Emilio left this morning for North Carolina and In two weeks Avi and I will be heading south to...where else?...Florida!

Sunday, March 06, 2005

An Asshole Walks into a Judaica Shop and Asks for a Tallit

As some of you may or may not know, I gift wrap Judaica for a living.
Barely a living.
I'm not sure how I ended up with this job but it is a never ending source of amusement to me the way that after all these years of running from my faith, all of a sudden I'm some sort of scholarly authority on the premises. When customers need the hebrew on their jewlery translated or some peculiar custom explained, inevitably, they get turned over to me. I know I should have learned this a long time ago but it seems I'm constantly being reminded that the Judaism I grew up with is quite different from the Judaism many other Jews know.

People just love to browse in overpriced gift shops, and as is the nature of retail work, I am obliged to kiss their asses, fetch tray after tray of roman glass star of david pendants for old grannies who I know have come only to finger every bit of merchandise only to proclaim everything too expensive and leave with, at most, a bar-mitzvah greeting card. Without a doubt the most annoying item in the store to suffer with non-commital shoppers are the talitot, or Prayer shawls. I'm not sure what exactly the significance of these prayer shawlsis. God told the men they should make themselves a four cornered garment with fringes. So they wear them. As with all things jewish, the type of prayer shawl (or yarmulka, or skirt style, head scarf etc. etc.) you wear announces to the world just what kind of jew you are. small black suede yarmulka? Very nice frum (religious) Yeshiva boy who might have broken with his insular world just long enough to get an MBA at Wharton before hightailing it home and marrying promptly. A flaxen talit woven with a rainbow of colored stripes, a new age renewal hippy jew.

My dad only ever had two Talitot that I know of. His standard issue white with black stripes that he wears at services, the folds of which slip off his shoulders and are forever in need of adjusting during his sermons, and an all white one which he wore at his wedding and every year for yom kippur. My father (who, incidentally, taught me how to dumspter dive a good ten years before any punks did) is also the type who wears his shoes out until the soles virtually cease to exist and his sweaters until his elbows are poking out of holes in the sleeves. It never really occured to me then that there was a whole world of fashion connected to these basic ceremonial objects. Unfortunately, you learn something new each day.

In the shop today I overheard parents calling to children named the following attrocities: Dakota, Sherridan, and Buddy. Who are these people? Are they really Jewish? Buddy's story was the tragic one. It seems he's got a bar mitzvah coming up and mom and dad brought him in today to do a little Tallit shopping. I heaved out pile after pile of shawls, each folded neatly in its own embroidered bag, for them to paw through. Buddy, like a good 12 year old boy, immediatly found one he liked and would have prefered to end the shopping expedition right there. This, however, was not acceptable to his dad who, over the course of a painful half hour, would prove himself one monster dick.

Buddy helped his mom try on a lovely hand painted silk shawl and Yarmulka. "It looks nice on you mom" he said sweetly as she patted herself and pivoted in her mirror. "Check it out dad, doesn't it look good on her?"
"What are you doing?" Dad shook his head in disgust. "We're here for HIM, not you."
Crushed, she removed the ensemble.

But it seems they weren't there for the kid because then dad starts asking "yeah, do you have anything in black? I'm wearing a black suit and I want a tallit to match."

To match? Huh?
four corners. fringers. That's all god said. Nowhere in there is a "matching" clause. I pulled out all the white and black ones and as he looked through them he kept asking buddy "Are you sure that's the one you want? That's the one? How about this one? or This one?" At one point he picked up one which mom pointed out was $400.
"What are you? An accountant?" He snarled. Wounded, she wandered off to look at some books.

Dad's voice softened when he found a Talit he liked. Embroidered around the collar was the Hebrew blessing one says when donning the garment. He, of course, did not know this. I had to explain it and translate it for him. Then came the search for a Yarmulka to match. Silver or black? decorated or not? He enlisted Buddy for help, who had by this time, been slumped against a display case, glassy eyed and miserable for a good 15 minutes. Mom reappeared like some meek mongerel puppy and while I helped other customers I could hear his abuse escalating. "..oh Don't bring that up now. That is in such poor taste. Can't you seem I'm here shopping with MY son?!"

This guy was such a bag of dicks. I wanted him out of the store. I wanted him out the world. I wanted to strangle him to death with crappy prayer shawl that he didn't give a shit about besides the fact that it matched his new suit and yarmulka. I wanted to punch his face, tell his wife to get a life and give poor buddy a hug and his first cigarette.

Finally the dad approached the register ready to pay for everything. Amazing. Someone was actually buying not one, but two Talitot instead of just making me unfold and refold them forever and ever. If I worked on commssion I would have made bank but who even cares. Stowing all my firey politcal ideology I just kept smiling as I bagged up his stuff.

"Have a nice evening" I said to dad and then pausing, trying to catch buddy's eye and pass him a sly wink, added "And Mazel Tov on your bar-mitzvah."
"Thanks" He replied "It's going to be super."

Friday, March 04, 2005

A Beer for a A Song

I am looking back at all the years I spent paying for drinks in bars and feeling a little bit foolish. Why it took me so many years to figure this out I don't know, but last night it finally dawned on me: In this moment of obscene late capitalism, when anything and everything is for sale, there is no reason why I shouldn't be bartering my pitiful services in exchange for goods...

When I called Len from Shelley's house last night I wasn't sure if I was investigating the possibility of a ride home or angling to go out and find some adventure. He and Raf were just about to leave Texas and hit the bars.
"If you guys are going out to pick up women, I don't want to get in the way of that!"
"Are you kidding?" Said Raf, a PHD student who recently, had been making a scholarly inquiry into the lies, narratives and myths men tell themselves when attempting to pick up women in bars (as you can imagine, the field reserach aspect of this paper involved going out for a lot of drinking and fun). "Cuteness begets more cuteness. Our Wing-Woman you shall be!"

Hip-Hop night at Lava Lounge is certainly a change of scenery. The bars I frequent, blessed but alas, are always filled with enclaves of sullen hipsters, looking hot but never approachable. I quickly noticed two things about Lava lounge:1) It was full of (gasp!) black, brown and yellow people and 2) Nearly all of them were men. Instantly, I felt a little insecure about the way I looked, my bangs ragged from yesterday's miserable self-administered hair cut butchery, wearing a pilly, holey (but thankfully at least, very tight) home-screen-printed thrift store sweatshirt. "These people dress like they have real jobs" I whispered nervously, more accustomed to the self-conciously anti-glamour stylings of desultory twenty somthings cobbling together no real justification for their pricey liberal arts degrees as temps, dog walkers and coffee servers.

Jack and coke's and corona's were on special and when Raf bought the first round I opted for the latter with two points of reason in mind: first, go easy tonight, just go easy. two, drinking corona would make me feel like I were on the beach. "that only means their advertising has worked on you." raf cited cynically. "Nonsense." I replied lifting the bottle to my ear. "If I listen carefully, I can hear all the peaceful beach sounds. It's like I'm holding a crystal conch."

When the boy's turn came up at pool (I declined to participate assuring them my bumbling presence would only be a hindrance) I needed something to do. And a new drink. I picked up my bag and migrated back into the front room, casing the bar in search of a John. Sitting down on a leather sofa-lette I pulled out a notebook and pen, began doodling mysteriously and waited. A handsome man sat down next to me and stared into the crowd, nodding his head slightly to the music. Before I had a chance to think about it, I could hear myself speaking to him.

"Excuse me. Any chance I could trade you a poem for a beer?"
"you want to write me a poem?"
"Well yes. Actually, you can get me started. Give me four words, any four you want and I'll write a poem with them right now."
He mulled this over briefly with a twinkly sort of grin.
"Alright. you ready for my words? Here they are:

Royalty
Confidence
Inhibition
Pride

Now, what kind of beer you want?"
"Corona would be fine." I smiled.

The guy disappeared to the bar and I took stock of my task. Clearly I had been catapulted into an incredibly masculine realm. Give the people what they want I decided. It was his three dollars, might as well make him happy. I worked briskly in the red light and thumping music. What emerged was a page of verse loosley about the dynamics of a pride of lions, subtely allowing my John to see him self as the ruling, roaring head. I ripped it from my notebook and exchanged it for the beer he'd brought me. What Len and Raf told me later was that I was, at this point, under no obligation to stick around, but I've never been great at the fuck and run. I watched him read the page, his head nodding, lightly shaking the curly strands that bobbled at the edge where it had become detached from the spriral of wire binding.

"Alright?" I asked feeling like I'd just administered a different kind of job with my hand.
"Yes. Thank you...so when's your novel coming out?"
I laughed and felt bad just leaving so I stuck around and talked to my new friend Otto for a while which, despite his being a nice, handsome guy, proved considerably harder work than cranking out a poem.

I returned to the pool table to check on the game. The boys were winning and in good spirits. I told len that next time I do this I ought to bring a piece of carbon to stick between my pages, since I tend to keep obsessive track of everything I produce.
"Naw...let it go abby, just let it be ephemeral."

Aglow with success, I returned for another hit. Resettling in my same spot I nabbed a dude sitting in that way that some men do, slouched down, arms and legs splayed, taking up a whole lot of space. I gave him my line.
"You want me to buy you a beer?" he asked like it was not big deal.
"No. Well, not exactly, I'd like to work for it. Like we barter..."
His four words:

Love
Immaculate
Unbelievable
Sex

Why are men so fucking funny? That's all I want to know. Or maybe it was just these men. The sallow rockstars boys I lust after, if I could even get them to play this game with me in the first place, would probably offer things like "deconstruction, provincial, tarot and curt" Me? I'd be so irritated at someone trying to scam me like this I'd do "melifluous, animadversion, philatalist, and toast."

but It's not a scam.
People really enjoy this. This time I stuck around just long enough to watch the guy read my work. For some reason this is important to me. It's importatnt that they feel satisfied, like they got a good deal. Upon finishing he closed his eyes momentarily and extended his hand for me to half shake, half slap like we were Bra's like I did a job well done.

Just as we were finishing this transaction, Len appeared with his coat. "We leaving now?" I asked. "but I just got this beer!" The three of us retreated back to the pool table, the site of a recent crushing defeat I later learned and shared my sort-of hard earned corona.

I listened to the waves and reminded myself to keep it ephemeral