Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Over the river and through the woods...

I’m attending some meetings this week, so I thought I’d just take the opportunity today to tell a personal story during a lull.

Around 1983, when I lived in the Washington, DC, area, I was in New York for a couple of days for meetings. My paternal grandparents were alive at the time, and lived in Brooklyn, so I phoned them on the first day, to see if I could stop by for a visit. Grandma answered.

Grandma was from Poland, Grandpa from Romania, and they both came to New York near the turn of the 20th century, in the nineteen-aughts or -tens; I’m not sure exactly when. They met here. Grandma’s English was always a bit spotty and heavily accented — she preferred Yiddish, when she had the option. She didn’t have that option with me, as the only complete sentence I can say in Yiddish translates to, “He should grow like an onion, with his head in the ground!”[1]

Once Grandma understood that I was in New York and wanted to visit, she, of course, delightedly said I should come that evening. “Vit us you’ll have dinner?”, she asked, a question in form only. I said that I could do that, or I could eat first and then stop by. “Vit us you’ll have dinner,” she replied, no longer a question in any form.

Great. So I asked how I get to their apartment by subway. Ah, not Grandma’s long suit. I should call back when my grandfather was home. 4:00.

I called again at 4:05, and Grandpa answered. His English was fine, from many years of driving a cab in New York City, and his voice was strong and firm.

“Ah, Barry, it’s good to hear your voice. Your grandmother was so worried. You were going to call at 4, and so at ten minutes to 4 the phone rings once and they hang up. Your grandmother answers and there’s no one there, she thinks it was you, you got mugged in the phone booth!”

Having settled that it hadn’t, in fact, been me, and that I was fine, he gave me subway directions and I arrived around 6:30. For dinner. With them.

As it turns out, though, their habit was to eat much earlier than that, and they had already eaten. “You didn’t tell us before, so I couldn’t make special for you,” said Grandma, who then proceeded to evert the refrigerator onto the kitchen table. Polish sausage, smoked fish, beef brisket, stuffed cabbage, beets, carrots, potatoes, salads, breads... the table was covered. She didn’t have to make special for me; it was a feast, and I had a nice talk with them.

When time came to leave, it was around 9:00... not late, but it was dark, and I think it was late from their perspective. Grandpa passed on some advice for taking the subway home, advice given in a heavy stream.

“You already know how to go to the subway station. When you’re walking there, don’t stop, don’t talk to nobody. They want the time, you don’t have a watch, they want a light, you don’t smoke, just keep walking. When you wait for the train, wait near the token booth so there’s somebody to see you, and then get in the middle car, where the conductor stays. It’s jungle out there, they killed a cop last week, nobody’s safe.”

I don’t know how things were back then, really (it was over 25 years ago, which is hard for me to imagine, as I remember it now), but I don’t remember feeling unsafe, particularly as early in the evening as 9:00. The streets were busy enough, as was the subway. Certainly, I wouldn’t worry now. 25 years ago? I don’t know.

In any case, the story amuses me when I think about it. So here it is, now shared.

[1] The Yiddish sentence actually appears in the Val Kilmer movie Top Secret. It’s just a throwaway line, if you don’t know what it means.

1 comment:

Catherine said...

I enjoyed your story. Many thanks for sharing it.