Calamity Flashed Briefly, Then Disappeared

20 April 2018

To borrow and embroider a well-worn first line from Victorian novels…”It was a dark and stormy night…with sideways rain and the skin crawl of inchoate fear. Oh, there was something out there alright, lurking…a creepy, shadowy specter of nearby calamity about to launch itself upon me…” Well, you get the idea.

It was on such a raw, disappointingly cold April night that I arrived at JFK a couple of years ago. By the time I was whisked by shuttle to the parking lot to collect my car, it was 9:30, moonless and miserable. After a day of travel there was still nearly an hour’s drive home. That wasn’t so bad, except for the wind, the rain, too few lights, too few signs and a touch of self doubt about where I was  going.

How hard would it be for long-term parking to put up a sign pointing the way to the Belt  Parkway service road? But there was none. Guessing, I turned right into the darkness and after a few uneasy minutes, saw distant airport lights on the right, just where they should have been. Now I just had to drive to the first underpass, take two lefts to the Belt service road going west…a four-lane road with several side-by-side overhead signs to various roads. Take any, but the right one, and I’d be lost until sunup.

The painted lane lines, well-faded to begin with, were all but erased by the rain. The rain overwhelmed the windshield wipers, so the sign letters were cartoonishly wavy. I  slowed to get a read. It was late, but in New York, there was traffic…impatient, honking, on edge.  Of course, I was in the wrong lane…almost swallowed up by the Belt going toward Brooklyn.  I leaned forward for a better look and at the last second eased out of that lane. The next sign I deciphered was to the Van Wyck. I relaxed…a familiar road away from the airport, heading home. I got into an entrance lane for it and stopped at a red light. A police car, roof lights flashing, was in the lane on my right.

A hundred times a day, driving, I change lanes and a hundred times I signal, automatically, even with no cars around. But this one time, squinting at signs, dealing with surging rain, trying to find lane lines, I didn’t. There was a honk…from the lit-up police car on my right. He rolled down his window and with a circular motion told me to roll down mine. It must have been important to him, because he was getting pelted by the rain. My window was open on the passenger side. “You know”, he said, “you didn’t signal, when you changed lanes. I just pulled over the car in front of me. Otherwise, it would have been you.” I smiled, said “thanks, won’t let it happen again”, but felt sorry for his need to get soaked, mentioning my infraction. I was, though, grateful for his prior engagement.

Civility, Fraternity, Gastronomy

4 April 2018

I was yanked back to a vivid, if humbling, memory of an incident years ago by a book I’m reading now, written by an American couple…a couple who decamps yearly to provincial France (Provence, actually) for a summer month of civility, fraternity, gastronomy and the attempt to stanch a year’s worth of language seepage from the previous year’s month spent in France, when they almost got back the seepage from the year before that. It’s a constant battle , because stateside there are precious few ways to maintain, much less improve the march toward fluency…a French movie, reading the menu at a French restaurant, a lecture that mostly flies over your head, a French class once a week.

In my case, I sallied forth to France with a thin veneer of high school French and the confidence that merely trying to get along in the native language would endear me to the locals. And for the most part it worked, as long as I stuck to renting a room, asking directions, ordering food, etc. More than that I was drowning in an incomprehensible wave of French idioms.

It was in the early 60s that I took an initial trip to France…a week in Paris, a week roaming the countryside and then another few days back in Paris. In Paris I found a small hotel, left-bank narrow, with an art deco elevator cage. The owner was a very courtly, kindly white-haired gentleman of an age, no doubt, who had seen years of nasty European history pass under his gaze. After a week I left for Normandy, the Loire Valley, Champagne. But my crowning achievement was arranging, in French, to return in a week and have a room in his superbe hotel for another few days. Done and done.

And so I was off to the glories of Rouen, the rock arches of Etretat in the English Channel, the vineyards of the Loire Valley and, finally, the day before my triumphal return to Paris, Troyes, southeast of Paris.

I can only hope that in the intervening decades, Troyes has been blessed with a renaissance that has touched up some aspects of its drab, rusted, industrial charms. I found a hotel late in the afternoon, and, needing a little shuteye, fell backwards onto the expected softness of the bed, which almost vaulted me back up like a trampoline. I eased myself onto it and realized that outside the traffic was as loud as 42nd Street at show time. Worse, there was a strong gas smell. A struck match to ignite a Gauloises somewhere in the hotel and poof. So I made a return trip with my valise down to the front desk and told them of the impeding disaster. My well-meant caveat they acknowledged with sullen grace. It iz not zat bad, they told me.

I decided to drive into Paris. I would be there a night early, but maybe my hotel would have a room. Along the road, I found a phone booth, crammed more than enough francs into it and, mon deux, the owner picked up. Now I had to explain myself. Words flew away. Nothing in the phrase book was appropriate. I stammered, I shed tears, I perspired. It was a minute or two…by far the longest of my life. I was a prisoner of my ignorance of French, Finally, the white-haired Galahad on the other end of the line asked…monsieur, do you speak English?

A Triumph…There Are All Kinds

2 March 2018

Improbable conquests: climbing Everest; the four-minute mile; the six-minute Louvre; eating 72 hot dogs in 10 minutes (Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating contest record); landing a quadruple toe loop and: finding four parking spaces in Manhattan on a Saturday night. I’m not built for high altitude, speed, spinning or distending my stomach, so the fifth challenge was the only one I’d try.

This past Saturday Roberta and I opted to take a car into mid-town, because we had three places to go…in different parts of the city. The subway was out of the question…the #1 (the nearest train) wasn’t running…track work over the weekend. Taxis were a possibility, but who can find even one on a Saturday night? (We’d need four.)

And so with misgivings we drove, first to the meatpacking district (lower westside) to an art gallery to see a friend’s paintings. Parking there is measured in fractions of a percent, since bikes and buses are taking up more street space. But, despite my pessimism, a spot appeared. Roberta, the genie of parking karma, claimed some of hers was rubbing off on me.

After the gallery, we drove across town for a 6:30 movie, allowing 20 minutes to drive and a half hour to try and park. What do you mean try and park, she jabbed from the passenger side. Think like a pessimist and you’ll never find spaces…like that one over there, she pointed and shrieked. We’re in a traffic jam…it can’t be a space, I said. Somebody would’ve taken it. But I scooted over and backed in. Take the space first and then check for No Parking signs later. We analyzed, check and rechecked…it was good.

Then perversity intervened. We walked four blocks to the theater, slid a credit card into the ticket machine to find the 6:30 was sold out. There were two tickets left for the 9:45. We were going for Szechuan after the movie…across town. A change was needed…so we’d eat now and come back for the 9:45. We walked back to the car and, nonchalant as bush pilots, gave up the parking space. Who does such a thing? Better to find a restaurant nearby than to give up the space. Plans needn’t be set in cement.

Back in the car we crossed town to the restaurant, which is surrounded by a cityscape of high-rise apartments, where parking spaces are as rare as red diamonds. But it was our night. A third space on a Saturday night materialized…a jewel in asphalt. We were innocents in the city that night with the hubris of golfers expecting par. Kung Pao chicken never tasted as good.

Then it was back to the movie on the eastside, going for a fourth space on Saturday night. Comeuppance was likely at hand. Traffic was heavier. It was high tide…restaurants and clubs overflowed. An ambulance ten cars back of us wailed desperately trying to get through. Then, miraculously, a space popped up…no hydrant, no driveway, no church entrance. It was like planting a flag atop Everest. I pulled up to back in. The car in back pulled up, so I couldn’t. The ambulance still wailed, now five cars in back of us, then four, three, two. The car in back finally gave in, backed up and with inches to spare went around us. We backed in just before the ambulance squeezed past. A fourth space on Saturday night.

It was quarter to twelve when the movie let out. We could have run to the car and tried for a fifth space before midnight, but that would only have been to gild the lily, not because we had another stop planned for the night. But we did drive uptown with smug smiles of satisfaction.

Darkness at Noon…I’m Going to Miss It

8 February 2018

We get used to loss more easily these days. In former times, we said solemn, extended, teary goodbyes…FDR, JFK, MLK…a part of our own stories taken from us. But now with 24-hour news, social media and deep dives into ubiquitous celebrity trivia, there is but a more fleeting time for sadness over what used to be heartrending events. Except for two weeks ago and the passing of the Lincoln Plaza Cinema across from Lincoln Center in New York. It was like a favorite uncle taken from us…needlessly, too soon, from a botched medical procedure. He should have been around much longer.

But, you might say, it’s a movie theater. Why am I obsessing over a movie theater? Well, it was more than a theater. Roberta, my significant other (words to describe companions well past adolescence are few), lives near Columbia University, sixty streets north of the theater. But still it was our local theater, because of the movies the owners chose to show…movies with European subjects, middle eastern subjects, mold-breaking themes with appeal to a tighter audience. They certainly appealed to the west side progressives (radicals even) who found a home for their cultural proclivities. These were not movies that gave a shot of the box office plasma that multiplexes need, though once in a while they did throw in first-run movies. But always interesting films. And then there was the refreshment counter…different as well with lemon squares, babka, carrot cake, rugalach, oatmeal cookies…you get the idea.

The closing was not a show the last movie, turn off the lights and lock the door affair. It was a wake, a shiva-sitting for the decades-long faithful, who listened to speakers who had known the owners and effervesced about them and the movies they showed and the directors who previewed movies there. Michael Moore, the last speaker, never successful in finding restraint, when illuminating the shortcomings of those with whom he disagrees, summoned anger and frustration over another cultural icon being lost to tawdry, runaway capitalism.

Then there were the grieving souls, the audience, another leg of the stool that gave them cultural sustenance, taken away. A lady in back of us…a film critic for an outré publication…who looked like she took time away from fortune-telling, dressed in a red satin coat with the gold embroidery of 16th century European royalty, a red velvet poof of a hat and ten rings, was taking notes and holding court with those she knew…one, a man, surely a steady at the theater, who apologized for his wife’s absence…she was home writing a libretto. I asked a man in back of me, clearly distraught, what he planned to do. Protest, he said. It works. There used to be pimps and prostitutes and drug dealers in my apartment building. I went to the cops and told them I had an AK-47 and that if they didn’t take care of it, I would. Another woman, with a starry-eyed lost look, whose family used to own a small bungalow colony in the Catskills, hadn’t decided what she could do.

The ceremonies ended, as wakes and shivas do, with hors d’oeuvres, wine and pastries and brave smiles. But now we’ve got to figure out where are we going to see movies like the last one they showed…”My Coffee with Jewish Friends”. I forgot to ask the clairvoyant if she could rattle some chains and come up with an answer.

Hear, Ye, Hear, Ye…I Wish I Could

7 December 2017

The leaf blower next door started at 8 a.m. scattering the birds. It also blew a line of poetry out of my head that I had been polishing over coffee. Lines of poetry are notoriously flighty before they are written down. Ask any poet. The best lines are the ones he fails to write down in time.

I had escaped a clamorous weekend in New York City, back to the relative quiet of the suburbs. But the truth is, I don’t mind noise…New York City was in the midst of Christmas season, the Sunday of Black Friday. At Rockefeller Center, the world’s gravitational draw for all the holiday faithful, there was a crowd hum, as selfie sticks by the thousands saluted the First Tree above the ice rink. If selfies made noise the din would have been catastrophic. Foot traffic was shoulder to shoulder and four-wheeled traffic on Fifth Avenue was stymied. Taxies honked for exercise, knowing it would have no effect and, predictably, an ambulance, caught in the web, tried to siren its way through the backup. But ten minutes and two blocks later, the siren was still chasing away all, but shouted, conversation. And then there were the halal food carts on every corner…the purveyors, shouting about falafel and kebobs and banging the stainless steel covers on warming pans to attract attention. Silence you can find, but a mélange of noise like this you don’t find just anywhere.

But, oddly enough, my escape to the suburbs was not to embrace quiet. The leaf blower’s unmuffled engine was more to my liking than any silent world…in a monastery, being under water, or on a mountaintop. I like the distraction of non-silence. And the suburbs, thankfully, have enough silence interrupters…lawn mowers, leaf blowers, buses, barking dogs, sirens…to make me comfortable.

The subject of noise and silence was fresh in my mind, having heard an interview with a Norwegian author/explorer who worked at finding silence…trekking 800 miles by himself over 50 days to and from the North Pole without even a radio, just to revel in the the sound of nothing. He repeated that trek to the South Pole and climbed Everest in pursuit of silence, so he would have only his inner voice to listen to (though Everest’s winds are anything but noiseless). Home noise (three children and a wife) and city noise in Oslo drove him to seek absolute silence, which makes me uncomfortable, after seeing the enforced silence at the French penal colony on French Guyana (in the movie “Papillon”). It makes me cringe.

On the other extreme, I have been assaulted by noise that is so unbearable that shepherds and green pastures and still waters start to sound really nice. The killer noise of a knitting mill…hundreds of looms, knitting huge rolls of wool and cotton…a friend, proudly showing me around his family’s business. Or another friend, whose son’s band was playing at “The Bitter End” in New York who gave us great seats up front…next to an enormous vibrating speaker…so we wouldn’t miss a note. What’s a little hearing loss among friends.



Never Be Awestruck…It Hurts

15 November 2017

Decades before neighborhoods in New York City were known by acronyms…SoHo, NoHo, Dumbo, Tribeca, Nolita…neighborhoods that were pulled up by their beleaguered bootstraps to gentrified, pricey elegance; and well before ‘trendy’ was the term meant to convey that priciness, I lived in Lincoln Towers…a group of high-rise buildings on the West Side with views of the Hudson and strong afternoon sun. That was years before they were separated from river views and sunsets by a colossal strip of apartment towers and lost a good bit of their bright light and luster.

It was also a time (the 60s) when values (ethics) and values (prices) were about to undergo drastic change. But it was in that bubble, the time before change, thinking that things wouldn’t change all that much, that I made a blunder that still haunts me. It concerned a photograph.

I had been a devotee of photography for a long time, a taker of pictures and workshops, an admirer of great photographers and, at times, a photography teacher. There were galleries and museums that exhibited photographs all over New York. And there was a gallery on the East Side that advertised an exhibit of photos that included my favorite photographer…Andre Kertesz. He was someone whose photographs spoke to me, so, of course, I went to see the exhibit. And no photograph spoke to me more that one that was in the exhibit. What an awed feeling to be that close to a photograph I had seen only in books. My favorite photograph…a picture Kertesz took of Piet Mondrian’s foyer in Paris in 1926…and I could reach out and touch it. I was that close to it.

But more than that…it was for sale. I could buy it…own a picture I have stared at, admiringly, in books for years. What an overwhelming sensation. Was I worthy enough to own this magnificent piece of art or should I be restricted to admire it only in books? Would it become too commonplace, if I saw it every day, hanging on a non-descript plasterboard wall in Lincoln Towers. Shouldn’t it be in the Louvre, so millions could see it? I hemmed and hawed. I wish I had been resolute enough to have said to myself back in the mists of my youth that if I ever saw that photograph for sale, I’d buy it in a New York second. And the price of this print…I’d be too embarrassed to tell you. So now you realize that this episode does not end in ownership.

Fast-forward to this year. I was visiting a friend who is an art dealer/collector and is battle-savvy in the art wars. I told him, with great embarrassment, of not buying the Kertesz.  It turns out that he, too, loved that photograph…so much so at almost the same time, decades ago, that he, without the awe of the art and the artist that weighed down on me,..called Kertesz, who lived in New York. And the maestro picked up the phone. I thought there were layers of protocol between artist and fawning public. But he told Kertesz why he called…he loved the photo and wanted to know, if he could buy it. Sure, says Kertesz…what size would you like. You want more than one copy…sure, my printer is coming in next week. And the price…scarcely half what it was in the East Side gallery of my hemming and hawing.

When a door opens, my father-in-law used to say, walk through it. Maybe I should have, but I still have the picture in books.

Romania…Last Thoughts

2 November 2017

As we were driving through Romania, we kept seeing pylons for electric lines or highway lights decorated on top with wheels of branches, like some great ceremonial hat, or bird’s nest. I’ve seen birds’ nests, but these were far too large for nests. Maybe some iconic national decoration. I’ve seen cell phone towers here made to look like trees, so this, I figured, was a way to soften the hard edge of industrial design. We assumed that was it and so forgot about it.

Once back, though, we mentioned it to a friend who has traveled to Poland several times, telling her of this odd, but pleasant, Romanian way of decorating pylons. Not decorations, she said with professorial surety…they are stork nests.

Stork nests? Could it be? We reddened at our naïve assumption that they were merely decorations. You mean there are real storks, not just drawings on Hallmark birth announcements…a smiling stork, a sling hanging from its beak and an airborne newborn…an enduring folklore tale. (Not that central and northern European folks were ignorant about the actual delivery procedures, but it was a less lurid answer, when children asked where babies came from. And, conveniently, the storks were there.)

I told her we didn’t see any birds using the nests. They probably have migrated, she said, you know what Polish, Romanian, Ukrainian winters are like. True enough. Storks migrate south in the autumn, likely a week or two before we got there, down to sub-Saharan Africa. Then in spring, riding the updrafts from thermals, they come back, religiously, like swallows to Capistrano…sometimes to the same nest. And I thought Google Maps was good. Not to burden with too much detail; there are 5500 mating pairs of storks in Romania alone. The nests can be six feet in diameter, four feet deep and weigh 550 pounds. They do capture attention.

One other distinctive fact of Romanian life…the traffic circle…a bit of competitive jockeying to us westerners accustomed to the certainty of traffic lights…red, green; stop, go. Just choose your destination from the signs on the way around and off you go. And if you have a question about where you’re going, circle again. For a tourist it’s not perfect, but you know, when the road you’ve taken goes from two lanes to one, then pavement to dirt, you’ve likely taken the wrong exit. So back you go to try again.

A final note. No feeling is more helpless than a kid separated from his parents. But two companions separated in a foreign country, late afternoon without cell phone service at Bran Castle (of Dracula myth), well, that’s a close second. Roberta balked at climbing the narrow steep stone steps to the rooms at the top, so I did alone. We’d meet at the exit later. And there I was, half an hour later, having descended the worn steps to the exit, waiting as fewer and fewer visitors were left to come out and no Roberta. It leaves the mind awash in awful imaginings. I ran downhill to a coffee shop, figuring she’d be sitting there in distress. Not so. I ran back uphill, thinking we were permanently separated. And there she was, casting me a “where the hell have you been” look (any look was fine at that point). It was only our third day in Romania. We had cappuccino and apple strudel at the coffee shop down the hill, a wonderful anti-anxiety remedy, and then, hand in hand, walked to the car and drove gratefully to Brasov.

A Little Luck Helps, When Street Signs Don’t

25 October 2017

A trip to Romania’s not easy. It’s not mint julep country…feet up, poolside. It takes work getting to know it, even superficially, especially for a visitor with nine or ten days to spend there. And what you pick up is more your own observations rather than the self-reveal of the people. Though the Age of Anger, after decades of political repression, seems gone, a quick smile isn’t quite ready yet, certainly from older Romanians. The lingering of long soviet over-lordism ensures a memory of the way things were.

For instance, the depressing, sameness of housing blocks, imposed in parts of most cities and larger towns (the larger the city, the longer the run of these blocks). Eastern Europe was not an architect’s paradise…one design dictat and like Chia Pets thousands of look-alikes grew. It was the same design I saw in Slovakia three years ago. In the countryside small towns are not ‘towns’ as we know them with a commercial center and radiating residential neighborhoods, but a string of houses parallel to the roadway, one house deep on each side. These ‘long’ towns flash by, because there’s no place to stop and walk, no roadside shoulder to stretch your  legs or take a picture. It’s hard to build walk-around neighborhoods on a straightaway…and maybe that was the idea. (To be fair, we stayed in a neighborhood of newish houses in Suceava, laid out like suburbia here…with folks on a stroll, talking.)

But Romanians are, never-the-less, driving headlong toward the middle-class, literally. There are new car showrooms everywhere, mirrors of ours…huge parking lots for the cars, high overhead lights and tall blowup cartoon figures that flop in the wind. It works…there are Audis, Mercedes, Volkswagons, Fords, Opels, Fiats galore, sharing the roads, of course, with more than a few horse-drawn wagons. But there is a setting sun on the horse and wagon set in this year of 2017 I.C.E. (iPhone Common Era). The old ways don’t have a chance. Picture three toilers of the fields…a father, mother (a babushka) and young girl, bouncing along in the wagon’s passenger seat, overlooking posterior equine elegance, pulling a load of dry corn stalks for animal feed. The girl, however, seems perfectly detached… talking on her cell phone. Apple thankfully has leap-frogged a century for countries with few telephone land lines.

One last P.S. on the asphalt life of Romanians. A lot of them hitchhike; men, women, old, young, babushkas, pensioners…a fluttering hand, palm down is the signal…not thumbing.

I said Romania wasn’t easy. It’s like an enticing cold beer, but the cap’s on so tight, it’s hard get off. There are towns and cities with landmarks to find. But  don’t be in a hurry, because  street signs (and parking), for the most part, don’t exist. Having an address is no promise you’ll find it. In Radauti we wasted daylight trying to find our hotel’s street by listening to the silky voice of Google Maps, leading us. but in circles. (Otherwise, Google Maps was extraordinary.)

Finally in darkness and frustration, we pulled over, asked a man getting into his car, if he knew where the Hotel Fast was. Dumb luck, he was an English speaker, an Irani, living in Britain, who spent time in Radauti and knew it like the back of his hand. Except he couldn’t tell us how to get there…no street signs. So he said, getting into his car, follow me, I’ll take you to it. Google had neglected a couple of turns, but, hey, with Iranian help, I did eventually get the cap off that cold beer.

It All Begins with Chicken Soup

12 October 2017

It was midafternoon when we got to Gura Humorului, Romania, after circumnavigating the painted monastery circuit near the Ukrainian border. (The monasteries’ exterior walls have painted religious-themed frescoes from the 15th and 16th centuries.) We were in search of money…a bank to change some dollars to local currency, the lei. All we found was a closed bank with an outdoor ATM, the kind that ingests your card and then regurgitates it, on a whim…or maybe not. But it was Romania, 5000 miles from home and I wasn’t taking the chance. I didn’t need those sweaty few seconds of “why did I do that” terror, waiting for a soulless machine to do the right thing and give my card back.

But Romania is good about taking plastic, especially in restaurants, so we decided that we could eat without money. And eating is a decent substitute for a bank…it always is. But Gura Humorului, like many Romanian towns has no “walk-around” areas, no plazas with shops, restaurants, cafes…and people. “Let’s walk downtown”…uh uh, not in Romania. Places are on their own. They’re “find them, if you can” places.

So we picked such a place from a computer web site…Hilde’s Restaurant…and Google Maps, bless its digital heart led us to it on a road out of town, up a driveway, around the back, through a fence and, et voila, a very nice redwood villa, tiled floors, picture windows, castle-heavy tables and chairs, standing ashtrays outside (Romanians smoke a lot, but not inside).

More amazing are Romanian menus, Hilde’s was no exception; pages and pages of soups, appetizers, salads, fish, pork, beef, poultry, desserts, coffees, wine, beer. Fortunately, below each was a decent English translation. Even though Romanian is a Romance language, it’s hard to figure out English words from it as we can in more familiar Romance languages; Spanish, French, Italian, etc.
So I was down to indulging my eastern European culinary roots, led by remembered whiffs from my grandmother’s kitchen. (She was from Radauti, ironically, the town we started from earlier that day on our monastery tour. My orthodox Jewish grandmother would not have minded.)

So we started where everything culinary begins…with chicken soup and then, I’m embarrassed to say, with stuffed cabbage, mamaliga, chicken schnitzel, pickled cucumbers and finally apple strudel. Mamaliga for the uninitiated is polenta with scoops of cottage cheese topped with sour cream. You’re in pacemaker territory with a steady diet of it.

We left Gura Humorului for Suceava and a night’s lodging there. Roberta, my fellow traveler, lost a jacket that she traced back to Hilde’s. It was a dickens of a trip having to go back the next day to retrieve the jacket…and have another meal.

Side-Curls Dancing with My Privacy

1 October 2017

We heathens trudged up from the subway’s depths. And there on the sidewalk above, celestially, was a minion of fresh-faced young Hasids backlit by the setting sun, smiling down at us, ready to throw breadcrumbs of righteousness at our feet, so we could find our way back to piety…their piety. (Hasids are members of an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect opposed to lax ritual.)

“You Jewish?”, a doughy-faced redhead, his face set off in a halo of side-curls, asks with a hint of a smile, knowing he’s being aggressive and making us uncomfortable. It’s the second night of Rosh Hashanah and we’re on the way to Brooklyn friends for dinner. I’m carrying two identifying loaves of challah, but they can’t see that. They’re in an unmarked plastic bag.

“You Jewish?” Why do they think it is okay to be that provocative, that boorish, to a stranger. Are we all…but for them…lost souls, needing redemption? My ethical governor thickens my tongue and prevents me from asking why he’s out on Rosh Hashanah, asking a stranger if he’s Jewish.

“You Jewish?” Here are young guys, settled into their lives, clothed the way they’ll be their whole lives, walking the same streets, denying the outside world, never knowing the agony of rooting for the Mets…Talmudic lives…lives of proscribed experience, telling us they’ve got it right and we don’t. Privacy, of course, in the internet age is as foreign as white-wall tires. Why should we complain about their meddling, when we’re asked to verify almost anything we do with the last four digits of our social security numbers. Shouldn’t everyone, then, be allowed to intrude on anyone else’s privacy?  It wasn’t always like this. I remember privacy…and I liked it.

I think back to my father-in-law, giving off unvarnished observations from western Pennsylvania. One day he answered the doorbell. And on the stoop were two Mormon young men, standing there twinkly-eyed and friendly. “Can we come in and pray a while with you?”, they asked. And Joe, who was not terribly accepting of ideas outside his area of practiced thought, said, “sure you can come in and tell me about your more supreme Supreme Being than my Supreme Being. But first you’re going to have to listen to me tell you about my religion. Won’t take long.””Well, thank you, sir”, they said, “maybe another day.” And off they went.

The lesson is that a little verbal dart at the right time gives a lot of satisfaction.