[Events depicted here are substantially accurate. The time frames are 1958 and 2009. As of this writing, Brooklyn had been through a metamorphosis since 1958. And as can be seen from the different sensibilities in the two parts of the story, so has our society. Written 10-17]
Louie lumbered up the flight of stairs to the restaurant’s “banquet room.” He was late for lunch, but not (he was sure) for the program and the socializing afterwards. Louie no longer hurried up stairways; his paunch was hidden by the fully cut shirts and Mario’s expert tailoring, but underneath the hand-stitching and carefully selected Italian cloth, not too clingy and not easily wrinkled, lurked a fold of fat from which hung, these days, a smaller but discrete additional fold of fat, all of which seemed directly connected to and interfering with his wind-pipe.
“Fucking fiftieth reunion,” he muttered between heavy exhalations; at least they could have met in one of those new restaurants on the waterfront, with the views of Manhattan across the River and modern elevators for the people who—well, were having their fiftieth High School reunion.
At the head of the stairs, a large bulletin board still had a few name cards, with table numbers, pinned to the green felt. Most of the people were already inside, but Louie found his name among a group of remaining, unfamiliar attendees. Hope I’m sitting with Joel and Steve, he thought; Joel particularly, he got me on an airplane from Boston to attend this goddamned thing in the bowels of Brooklyn, near the old school in a space that had once been a fine restaurant, then a shuttered relic surrounded by slums and violence, and now again a restaurant but still in the wrong part of town to be written up in the New Yorker.
“Hold up,” said a small voice. “Put on your pin!”
A trim blonde with a bit too few lines on her face emerged from the room and waved her hand at a second table, on which were several large pins, each with a photograph of an attendee taken from the senior class yearbook. Louie winced, avoided eye contact, and picked up his pin. His younger self, framed by an unfortunate paisley patterned shirt, reminded him of many things, most of them unpleasant.
“Noooo,” said the voice with sudden animation. “Louie?” A big smile. “I never would have recognized you in a million years. I think it’s the beard. You guys can hide behind your beards, we girls just have to put it all out there for everyone to see.”
“Well, you handled that with some plastic surgery, I bet,” he thought to himself as he looked square at the woman, guessing where the stiches were hidden.
Louie thought it was Myra, some last name forgotten for the moment, very Jewish, big breasts and tight sweaters came to mind. But what if he was wrong?
“I know you, but I’m afraid I will insult you with a wrong name.”
“You and me both, Louie. We do tend to forget, don’t we?” Slight pause, then “Myra! Myra Krakow. Well now, Krakow. Myra Rabinowitz!” With that, a gentle downward pull on his shoulder, followed by a solid kiss on the cheek.
“Myra! So good to see you,” he blurted, then was embarrassed. Trying to regain his poise, Louie tried some of the charm he had picked up in life which was sorely lacking in his teens.
“And not only do you look great, but you have no idea how I would have appreciated a kiss like that fifty years ago!”
“Oh, you always were a smooth talker,” said Myra with an even broader grin. Louie was sure her memory had him confused with some other teen, but went with the flow.
“Thanks,” he said, affecting an abashed karma.
“So come in, come in, almost everyone is here, we’re about to sit down, I have to help get everyone in their seats,” and Myra gently touched a large red ribbon pinned to her collar: “Welcoming Committee.” “I see you’re at table 15, not my table, but come over why don’t you, table 11, you can meet Harry. Harry Krakow! He was a year ahead of us. We can talk.”
And then she was gone, leaving Louie perusing a nondescript room with about twenty round tables, each with eight chairs facing eight neat warm fruit-cups and eight glasses of water. Not a whiskey nor a bottle of wine in sight. “Shit,” he said loudly and then looked around to make sure no one heard him.
Disguised behind his goatee, Louie looked down and attempted to glide unobserved to table 15, which he saw about in the middle of the room. Successful in not recognizing anyone, Louie grabbed a chair and sat down immediately, only then realizing he had his back to the small podium. Too late to get up, and no one else seated yet, he unfurled his napkin, took a small corner of orange from his fruit-cup before he realized he should wait for the others, and occupied himself with the list of attendees he found on the table.
“Will ya hurry up, ya dork. It’s freezin’ here.”
“I know it, I know it. I’m tryin’ as fast as I can.”
“Well, it ain’t fast enough Louie. My damned hand is frozen to the fuckin’ door it’s so cold. How long does it take you to piss, anyway?”
“I’m tryin’. It’s so cold my dick won’t straighten out, fa godzake.”
Joel held the door as wide as he could, looking over his shoulder, fearful that some teacher might come down the hall any minute.
“Jesus,” Joel said.
“It’s coming I tell ya. Yeah. AAHHH.”
The sound of a couple of splishes, then a steady stream of sound as Louie’s urine splatted onto the concrete landing, a hint of steam rising as the fluid hit the frozen surface.
“Aaahh,” moaned Louie. “Aaahh, did I ever have to take a leak!”
Joel closed the door half way. “What, now you’re trying to set the Guinness record, longest piss outta a doorway? Come on, pinch it off, let’s go.”
Mr. Greenberg vaporized over Joel’s shoulder, somehow traversing the worn grey tile floor without so much as a squeak of his rubber-soled shoes. “Well, this is quite a sight. Just what is going on here, gentlemen?”
Joel jumped and lost his grip on the door, which began to close rapidly, hitting Louie in his rump and almost throwing him out onto the landing. Frantically, he tucked his hardware into his shorts and started to pull up the zipper on his jeans. Too late, he realized he had forgotten to stop urinating; a warm trickle escaped his boxers and soaked into his denims. A small dark spot formed, visibly, near his right pocket.
A thin smile spread over Greenberg’s pasty face, cutting into his jowls, squinching up his cheeks until his horn-rims rose a half-inch off his nose. “This better be good,” he said. “What are you gentlemen doing?”
Louie looked down, tongue-tied. A silence that Joel felt obliged to break. “Mr. Greenberg! It was—just a dare.” He could not tell the truth, it was too embarrassing, too revealing. And if word got out, the truth might even prove to be – dangerous.
“A dare? A dare to urinate out a doorway on the coldest day of the Fall? You expect me to believe that?”
Louie found his tongue long enough to blurt out, “Yeah, a dare. It was a bet actually. It was…. Well, you see Steve Hochberg said that—uh….” The lie was too complicated; it died on his lips.
“Well, let’s all walk down to Principal Thorne’s office and we can discuss this – incident a little further. I am sure the Principal will be fascinated.”
“Let me see if I understand this precisely.” Thorne sat back in his swivel chair, his mustache twitching as he spoke, his thin freckled hands making a small tent on top of his vest. You, Mr. Fleisher, were holding open the door on the East side of the school and you, Mr. Gittleson, were micturating out onto the landing in broad daylight? Do I have that correctly?”
“I was pissing, sir. I – uh – am not sure about the mictering thing.”
Thorne rolled his eyes, beady little black marbles deep in his gaunt face. “Micturating, not mictering, Mr. Gittleson. It means urinating. Or as you prefer, ‘pissing.’”
“Oh” said Louie.
“And you, Mr Fleisher were watching all this?”
“Well, sorta. I mean I held the door, I wasn’t exactly, uh, looking at Louie’s – uh, you know?”
“And, Mr. Greenberg, you came upon this cameo moment and made due inquiry and were told this was something of a ‘dare’?”
Greenberg did not like Thorne, who was something of a prig. New to the High School and clearly not relishing an assignment to a large school in the toughest part of Brooklyn, his approach was to condescend which was fine for the students, but Greenberg had been teaching here for twenty years and he did not like being looked down upon by someone who was more martinet than educator.
“Yes, that’s right,” he answered curtly. At that moment, he was almost sorry he had brought the boys to Thorne’s office, regardless of what was happening out the doorway.
“Do you boys have anything to say to me that might explain or excuse this violation of public decency and school decorum,” asked Thorne.
He waited, enjoying the awkward silence.
“Alright, I understand your reluctance to talk with me. You will each be suspended for a week. During that time, perhaps you can get your story straight while you write an apology to me and Mr. Greenberg and try to explain to your mothers the phone call I will make to each of them this afternoon. Mr. Greenberg, you have cafeteria next period I believe. Ask Miss Milliponte to proctor that function. Help these boys gather their clothes and books and escort them out the front door; please come back past my office and kindly confirm that you have done so. Thank you all, you are all dismissed.”
Thorne then made the pretense of starting to read a package of papers he picked up off his desk; he did not look up until he heard the door click shut.
Thorne dropped the papers back onto his desk, and rocked back into his chair, eyes closed, and enjoyed feeling sorry for himself. What quirk of chance had landed him, three years before retiring, as jailer in this hellhole that was supposed to be an educational institution? Whose feathers had he ruffled at the Board of Education to earn this demotion, cleverly described to him as an “opportunity to apply his time-honed skills in a more challenging assignment”? A school full of Negroes who dribbled basketballs in the hallways, a smattering of Italian kids who did not want to be there, and this annoying clump of Jews, kids like this Gittleson and this Fleisher, one of them urinating out a doorway if that doesn’t beat all. And Greenberg; a teacher but one of them, did he think I didn’t notice that little grin on his face as I was dealing with these little perverts?
“Shit,” he said out loud, and then closed his eyes and thought about his last assignment in Riverdale, out there among the single-family houses with grass in the yards.
Each day, the students spent 20 minutes in their home room, with attendance taken and announcements made, before heading out to their various classrooms. Home room made Louie nervous. Home room made all his friends nervous. All his Jewish friends. Of course, he didn’t have any friends who weren’t Jewish, all in college prep classes. But home room was arranged alphabetically, seemingly in an effort to let students who did not share classes mingle with each other. Louie stood reciting the pledge of allegiance with everyone else, being careful not to speak the new words someone had decreed should be added, the “under God.” He had heard his father tell his mother that he objected to those new words, and had heard his mother tell his father to keep his mouth shut even if the “God” referred to didn’t happen to be a reference, they were sure, to their family’s God. After that, Louie just mouthed those two words, afraid to keep his mouth closed lest he be observed, but faithful to whatever his parents seemed to be talking about.
The class room was arranged in six rows of six small desks, two rows adjacent and aisles separating the paired rows. Sitting down from the pledge, Louie glanced quickly to his left at Tommy Holmes, the Negro assigned to the adjacent seat. He was afraid to look too long, fearful he would be perceived as “staring.” In almost three months, they had said not one word to each other.
Tommy took out a fountain pen and began daubing small puddles of dark ink onto his trousers. Head down and intent on his task, Tommy’s eyes were not paying any attention to Louie, and Louie leaned slightly to his left, not understanding what Tommy was trying to do with the ink. All of a sudden, Tommy must have sensed Louie.
“What the fuck you lookin’ at?”
Louie jumped. “Uh, nothing.”
“Say what?” Tommy’s tone was not friendly. Tommy was six foot eight and the star center on the school’s basketball team, the only sports team at the school.
“Uh, I was sorta looking at what you’re doing with the pen, ya know?”
“Yeah, well I’m just fillin’in the white spots where there’s jizzum on the outside.”
“I’m sorry,” said Louie.
“What you sorry for, huh. Ain’t your pants that’s fucked up.”
“No, I’m sorry I, um, disturbed you.”
“Didn’t bug me none, kid. Ain’t you never had this – situation.”
Louie wanted to stop talking, wished the bell would ring so everyone could get up and walk to class. Besides, he didn’t know what to say. He had no idea what the white stains were, though they were in some embarrassing places. He just looked down and did not answer.
Tommy took out a black composition book, opened it and stared at the page. After about a minute, he turned back to Louie.
“Hey, you takin’ math?”
“Sure. We all gotta take math.”
“You know how to do this? I can’t follow this shit. Don’t know what the fuck they talkin’ about.” He slid the notebook to the edge of his desk, and Louie gingerly lifted it in front of him and stared at five problems hand-copied into the book. They were simple multiplication problems, a number with four digits times another number with two digits.
“Yeah, I can do this,” Louie said, not mentioning that he had done multiplication in third grade and now his honors class was working quadratic equations. “Want me to teach – uh, show you how this works?”
“I don’t give a crap but tell ya what, if ya can do them why don’tcha just fill in the answers for me.”
“In your notebook? You want me to write in your notebook?”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
Ten seconds later the bell rang to change classes. By then Louie had filled in all the answers and handed the book back. Tommy took the book, stood up and walked towards the door. He did not say a word.
A few days later, another home room. Tommy’s head was down, resting on his folded arms, hunched over the desk which was ridiculously small for him. Tommy sat up with a start, scaring Louie, who felt compelled to say something. “You okay?”
“Yeah, just tired. Noisy in my street last night.”
“Say, how did that math homework work out?”
“Yeah, fine but that bitch said ‘real good’ and gave me some more problems to copy. That shit just don’t go away, y’know?” Tommy started to put his head down again, then stopped and turned to Louie, pivoting in his seat so abruptly that Louie recoiled, sliding to the right edge of his chair.”
“I got an idea,” Tommy said. “Wanna hear?”
No, thought Louie, and “yes” said Louie.
“You can do my math for me. That way I can get the grade and stay playing on the basketball team. It don’t seem to be too hard for you; you gonna have to make a mistake or two or she gonna get suspicious, ya know?”
Louie almost felt the sweat form at his hairline, deep near his skull and hidden by his flop of brown locks. It’s wrong, he thought. I don’t think I should say no, he thought. Oh shit, he thought, why hadn’t he pulled a home room seat next to some white kid, even an Italian.
“Sure, glad to,” he said out loud with a enthusiasm which he then regretted.
“It’s a thing,” said Tommy and stuck out his hand which Louie had to shake, fearing a crunching pressure and being shocked by the gentle pump while enclosed in what he was sure was the largest hand he had ever seen up close.
Tommy dropped the hand and a big smile spread across his face.
“Hey, I got another idea. How good you in English? And biology? I got troubles all over the place, ya know.”
“You want me to do all your homework,” Louie exclaimed with an unintended edge in his voice that echoed his real reaction.
“Yeah. It ain’t hard but I need to be sure I can stay eligible. You don’t go to no games, do ya? I’m the center, we ain’t been beat, we goin’ to the championship with Boys High end of the season.”
Tommy knit his brow and then his smile returned. “I can see you ain’t too happy about this. You thinkin’, I doin’ this nigger’s work, what’s in it for me? You thinkin’ if I don’t say yes, he and his guys they gonna pound my ass one day goin’ home. Well, I know what you white guys think about us; we can dribble but we can’t think and we settle everything with a push-button knife, right? Well, you don’t know shit about me or about us, got it? Not shit! But you don’t learn that, right? So here’s the thing. You tell me what you want back as payment. Anyone bothering you here, that you want dissuaded? We can talk to him ya know. You get clean-up assignment in the cafeteria? When you name on that list, you want someone ta take care a that for ya? You tell me, kid, what you want that I can do to pay you up for your – help?”
“You don’t have to do anything. We’re classmates, right. Glad to help.” Louie heard the shrill fear in his voice and hated himself for it. It was true, he was petrified of the colored kids and knew, just knew, that they hated the white kids. But was it smart not to ask for something? Tommy didn’t look like he would enjoy being beholden to him for the homework; Tommy’s self-respect was on the line, his cred.
Then Louie had his epiphany. It struck him like a hard slap in the face, it stung his awareness, it lit his body on fire. It was genius. And it was something that Tommy could do. Yes indeed; a big favor, but for Tommy easy as running the basketball floor; he could do it with confidence, with grace, and it would be truly, deeply appreciated.
“Tommy, do you know how my friends and I take a piss?”
Tommy’s body tensed, but Louie held up a hand. “Let me finish. Here’s what we do. Someone holds open an outside door and we piss outside.”
Tommy’s face started to laugh but he caught himself; the kid was telling him something serious.
“You know why, Tommy? Betcha don’t so I’ll tell ya. Because if you’re white and Jewish you can’t go into any of the boys bathrooms. And here’s why. The big one near the front door, that’s the Italian bathroom. If ya just gotta go and if you happen to know one of the guys who’s there that day, you can get in for a dollar. Who has a dollar most days? The ones down the long halls? The Lords have the one near the library. The Rebels got the one on the other side. You think they let me in? You crazy? No how.”
“Then there’s the locker room, the big bathroom next to the gym. Who has that one, Tommy? You tell me.”
“We got it. The basketball team. But everyone uses that one.”
“Sure, when you’re at gym, the coach is there. Or when there’s a game going on, everyone is there. But say it’s fourth period and you gotta take a leak. And you’re me. Do I go in there? Do I walk in there? Bullshit I do.”
“So say that’s right, just sayin’,” Tommy now struggling to understand what he didn’t understand. Because now that he’s hearing it he knows it’s true. There is no Jewish bathroom, that’s for sure. Those guys couldn’t run a water fountain at the school, let alone secure a whole bathroom. “So you tell me, whaddaya do? Go running to the Principal, ask if you can piss in his bucket?”
“Oh, right, Tommy, Thorne gives a shit where the Jews piss. Guess again? What, no ideas? I tell ya. You get a friend, you go to the back doors and your friend holds open the door so you don’t get locked out and you piss out the door. Yeah, go ahead and smile but it ain’t funny. And you know what ya do when ya gotta crap? Ya pick up your coat and books and go home, and tell your mother that school ended early for teacher conferences or something because ya can’t tell her what’s really happening.”
Louie stared right at Tommy, a bit of his spittle jiggling on the edge of Tommy’s desk, and for the first time Tommy could not hold Louie’s look. His eyes dropped and as he said quietly, almost a whisper, “so you wanna use our bathroom?”
“Yeah. I’ll do all your homework. All your classes, I can, ya know. I can do all your homework in homeroom. And I won’t tell anyone. I’ll try to slip in so no one sees me doing it. At least, no one who’s white. But I can use the basketball team bathroom whenever I want. You tell the guys. Whenever I want. All til I graduate.”
Exhausted, his head dropped but he looked at Tommy over his glasses. “We got a deal,” he asked?
Tommy’s face was placid, no expression. But his eyes showed an empathy which echoed in his voice. “Yeah, kid, we got a thing here. We all got problems. Right? So you and me, we got our thing.”
They sat a minute, looking at each other, and the class bell thankfully rang. They each stood and started down their aisles when Tommy turned.
“Hey, kid. What the fuck’s your name, anyhow.”
Myra stood at the rostrum and said the usual things one says. Who came furthest? Do we remember the school song? None of our teachers were able to attend, mostly they had just disappeared into life. Many no doubt into death. Brian Cooper, most likely to succeed, come up and say a few words about being a dentist in Miami. Prettiest girl, Phyllis come on up and let us see how beautiful you still are after all these years (no mention of the plastic work that seemed to be surprisingly prevalent). Isn’t it great to see old friends after all these years. Who wants to say a few words?
Louie was leaning over, talking earnestly about the Boston Red Sox while Joel was explaining why the New York Mets were in a rebuilding year, when the speeches ended. Their table was made up of three couples and the two of them.
One couple had flown up from Florida; many others seemed tan, fit and living in the South, well-dressed, successful in their own ways as teachers, professors, lawyers, doctors, owners of stores or chains of stores. Gloria Shipley had married a Wall Street trader whom she had in tow, he in an incongruous suit and tie. Steve Shanksy was a retired doctor from Patchogue, Long Island, who kept talking about his house in East Hampton (“one block from the water, close enough but you want to avoid the direct ocean spray,” he rationalized). Rachel Plotnik was accompanied by her husband Ricky Spinelli, a classmate who seemingly made a fortune in cinder blocks.
People talked about old times, surrounding their memories with well-placed references to their success in life, their children and grandchildren. Louie was measuring when to leave, to say his farewell to Joel with whom he found he had little in common, and was about to make his move when a lithe black man with small goatee walked up to Louie’s small knot of people. Until then, Louie had not focused on the fact that there were no black faces, no brown faces at the reunion. Indeed, the reunion crowd was an echo of his own experience at the High School; de facto separation of people by race, religion, ethnicity, and indeed by wealth – or in the old days, more like degrees of poverty.
“May I introduce myself,” the man asked while not expecting an answer. “I’m Drew Carter. Class of ’59, but I guess most people are here for that reason also.” He paused. “I don’t think I had many classes with you folks, but then again it was so long ago….”
Joel stood and offered his hand. “Joel Fleisher. Pleased to meet you. Or rather, see you again.”
“Sit down, join us,” said Louie, feeling inwardly trapped by circumstance.
“Don’t mind if I do. Ya know, I used to run up and down the basketball court all day and think nothing of it. Now if I stand too long, my knees get stiff. Come to think, they also get stiff if I sit also.” A wry smile hinted it needed to emerge, then finally broke free.
“So what did you play on the team,” Spinelli asked. “Used to love that team. Went all the way to the City finals what, twice while I was there.”
“Yeah, we did, we did. We were good all right but we never could get over on Boys High. In those days, that school could recruit from all over Brooklyn. We just had the guys in the hood, ya know. We were good alright, but they was great. Great…” as he trailed off, his eyes focused somewhere into the past.
“There aren’t a lot of black people here at the reunion, the school was what, maybe divided in half.” Rachel paused, then plunged ahead. “Do you know why that’s so, Drew? Can I call you Drew?”
“Sure, sure you can. Ya know, actually only two of my people came to attend today, me and Minerva, never did recall her last name, she’s Minerva Stetson now, but she wasn’t feeling all that well, I took her downstairs and put her in a cab just before they served. Ya know, it was sort of, well, very segregated when we went there. Not a lot of friends of mine here, tell the truth. I mostly hung with the team, we was all black ya know. Fact, lookin’ around, only one I recognize is you, Louis. I only recognize you from your pin, a’course. You was real good friends with Tommy, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Louie said.
“Now lots of my people aren’t here for a whole bunch of reasons.” Drew cleared his throat. “Some, they moved away. A lot got in trouble, ya know. A lot went to prison, didn’t come back around here. Truth is, many are dead, some naturally, some not so naturally. And I know a bunch still in Brooklyn, live near me, but their health it isn’t so good these days.” He looked around at the tanned, tone group and almost sighed. “We don’t last as well as you folks seem to have lasted, truth be told.”
Joel broke the awkward moment. “Where are you living, Drew. You look pretty chipper.”
“Oh, I’m okay as these things go. I still live in the neighborhood, Utica Avenue down near where the school used to be before it went to hell and they took it down. I worked my whole life around here. Started as a bus-boy at Cohen’s Deli on Remsen. Went on to be the cook and when Mrs. Cohen retired I bought the place. Learned to cook Jewish, ya know. Ran it til about five years ago. Whole neighborhood changing. Young people moving in. All kinds, though mostly white I guess. A developer bought the building, evicted me and put up a small apartment, but it was okay. It was time….”
“Any kids, Drew?” Rachel leaned forward, gentle with the question.
“No, actually never married. Spent my time working. Restaurants are a hard business. Tried to stay in touch with the guys, mostly the guys on the team, though. I think I may be the only one left.”
Louie had to ask: “What about Tommy? Is he still around?”
Drew looked up, mild reproach on his face. “Didn’t stay in touch, I guess, didja? Well, life is like that. You were pretty tight, though, for a time. No, he got out of school and drove a truck for a while. Then he had an accident one night, driving. Think he might have been high, he was using pretty regular by then. He just got killed that night, was all. In Queens I think on the BQE. Never did like that Expressway.”
“Sorry to hear it,” said Louie.
“Yeah, well that’s how it goes,” Drew replied. “Never did understand the two of you, back in the day. You was so tight, Tommy he told us you could use our bathroom any time, no hassle. That was something, I tell ya!”
Joel caught Louie’s eye, his lips open but with no sound coming out. Louie flashed him a wide smile, and turned to Drew.
“We had a special relationship, Drew. It was our thing,” he said.