But she didn’t bite off my ear

October 10, 2010 at 3:01 PM 3 comments


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I was out running errands and enjoying my daily dose of self-pity when I saw an old shambling woman in front of the Chinese take-out restaurant on Riverdale Avenue. In a few minutes, I had my fried rice in hand and came upon her again, this time pushing a wire shopping cart in the direction of Bell Tower Park. She was trying to force an arm into the sleeve of her purple coat.

“Can you help me?” she asked in a bleating kind of voice.

My instinct is to walk past desperate people, especially when they ask me for help. But given that we have just passed through a season of introspection and repentance, I figured I would be like George Costanza on the day he decided to behave in a way contrary to his usual habits.

“What can I do?” I asked her.

“Help me put my arm into my sleeve,” she pleaded. Overwhelmed by the ordinary: She had to be a Holocaust survivor.

I pulled the drooping side of her coat up to her shoulder and guided her arm into a rip in the lining.

So much panic over a sleeve. “No!” she said. “That’s not good!”

On the way to the restaurant. I had stopped in front of the veterinarian’s office. Three black tiger-striped kittens were curled around each other, almost like sweet rolls on a bakery plate, and now, perversely, the woman’s awful looking sheytl made me think of them. One soft fuzzy thing terrible, one soft fuzzy thing adorable.

The woman had big brown shell-shocked eyes. I had noticed them at the Chinese restaurant and looked away as fast as possible.

At last I got her into her coat. I wanted to run off but I had to confirm my suspicions.

I was chosen to live. I don’t know why.

“I just had surgery on my shoulders,” she said. “I can barely move them.” She demonstrated her inability to raise her arms.

I asked, “Are you having physical therapy?”

“Yes, I’m starting,” she said. A roll of the eyes told me she had no faith in the treatment.

“My son is in a wheelchair,” she said. “I need to push him.”

I asked, “Are you from Poland?”

“Yes.” A little bit surprised.

“I could tell by your accent. Krakow?”

“Silesia.”

“My uncle lived in Silesia,” I said.

“It was a long time ago,” she said. “I was young. I wouldn’t remember anything from then.” She opened her brown eyes as wide as they would go. She said, “I was in Auschwitz!”

“Terrible.”

“Of my whole family, I was chosen to live,” she said. “I don’t know why!”

Her tears came with just that much provocation.

“I never did nothing to nobody,” she said. “My whole life I don’t understand why I had to go through all of that.”

“Is your son an older man?” I asked.

“He’s forty-one,” she said.

“What happened?”

“He had a stroke. At seventeen!”

“Oh, no!”

“He got overheated and he got a stroke. His mind is good. He went to college, but he lives in a wheelchair. He depends on me.”

“Do you have other children?” I asked.

“I had,” she said. “My son was a researcher in upstate New York. One day on the way to work, he had a heart attack. The ambulance people tried to revive him, but he died on the way to the hospital.”

“Everything has happened to you!”

I keep kosher, but I believe in nothing!

She was weeping. “Everything!” she said. “I don’t see nothing bad happening to bad people. Where is God, I would like to know!”

“But you are a religious woman,” I said. Or so I surmised from the fuzzy sheytl and the shell-shocked eyes.

“Religious! Yes, I keep kosher. But God? I believe in nothing!”

She continued to sob. “Look at this world,” she said. “Every day killings, stabbings, explosions. What kind of God lets such things happen?”

This was exactly the conclusion I have been trying to fight off for years. Oddly, only a few hours earlier, I had begun to convince myself that I really did believe in God. A new cycle of doubt was about to begin.

“Do you have grandchildren?” I asked.

“A grandson,” she said. “He’s a doctor.” She was a bit calmed by the thought, but I had the feeling that she and her grandson did not see much of each other.

The woman was so much an incarnation of my thoughts and self-pity that for a moment, I was disoriented. I had made a turn down Johnson Avenue instead of heading west on 239th Street to my home.

Hassling the good, appeasing the bad

We spoke for a few more minutes. She was glad that Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani immigrant, had been convicted for his attempt to blow up Times Square, but couldn’t understand how he had become a naturalized citizen. “When I came to this country, I had to answer so many questions,” she said. “Why? One look at me and you could see I was a survivor from Auschwitz. Why does the world have to be so unfair?”

We were blocking the sidewalk and incurring the glowering looks of the joggers and shoppers streaming around us. I wished the sad old woman a good afternoon and headed home.

My overly associative brain sauntered off on its own puerile path and dredged up the memory of a Lenny Bruce riff on the melodramatic plots of the Second Avenue Yiddish theatre. It goes something like this: A poor soul is so crazed from all the woes that befall him that he bites off his mother’s ear.

When I did a Google search for a Lenny Bruce image for this blog post, I came across the one where he’s holding up a copy of “The Evening Times” with the blaring headline, “Six Million Jews Found Alive in Argentina.”

“I’m sorry if I’m not very funny tonight,” reads the photo caption. “But I’m not a comedian. I’m Lenny Bruce.”

My ear is bleeding!

Wordle

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Entry filed under: God, Holocaust, Judaism, New York City, Religion, Shopping, War. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Hold the advice. They’re not listening! Trains, automobiles and a rainy night in NYC

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sara Bennett  |  October 10, 2010 at 5:56 PM

    I almost always stop and I’m usually glad I did. Are you?

    Reply
    • 2. Bookpod  |  October 10, 2010 at 7:08 PM

      Passing her by would have been like passing my own mother by. I couldn’t do that…

      Reply
  • 3. Sara Bennett  |  October 10, 2010 at 7:57 PM

    I just helped an old lady across the street! I said I almost always stop. I forgot to say that it’s a usual occurrence, too.

    Reply

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