Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Memories of Ruth Bagel Ginsburg.

Now that I have spent six months out of New York, I'm beginning to have moments of PNYSD (Post New York Stress Disorder.)

My wife, Whiskey and I have been living up in a bucolic little anesthetized town on the Connecticut coast, called Old Saybrook. The area was first explored by Europeans when Dutchman Adriaen Block got lost sailing in 1611 and again in 1614. He was up and down the rocky coast here. Someone put his name on Block Island some centuries before Joseph Kennedy made the whole Long Island Sound a sanctuary for his special brand of rum-runners.

It wasn't until the 1630s that the English made it down to this area, and it took them at least a dozen years to kill all the native Americans. They called their genocide "The Great Pequot War," but there was nothing great about it, and I'm sure, from the native American point of view, it was more a slaughter, a massacre or a pogrom than a war.

Nevertheless, not five hundred yards from my new rickety home overlooking the sea from the town's highest point, is a sign put up by the local historical society commemorating that war and the victorious bloodshed that occurred where today, millionaires roam, and drive to the beach in electric golf carts.

Every once in a while you read something in the local paper (it consists of two articles, 20 classified ads selling peoples' excess crap, a list of covid victims and the Family Circus comic strip) that someone's found an old Pequot relic from 3000 years ago or 10000. I've been fantasizing about tripping on such a discovery since I was about three. The closest I ever got was cutting my foot open on a nearby beach from a 30-year-old Coke bottle.

In any event, I've been up here for six months--and I like it ok. I like my walks on the beach. I like not working for the Pompoustocracy of a modern agency and I like being liberated from the clutches of petty technocratic bean-counters like Mark Read whose in perpetuity "compensation" is way more important than providing his customers with a good product.

However, as much as I am ok up here, I really miss New York.

Of course, the New York I miss isn't the New York I've lived in for the last 40 years. It's the New York before the rich folk and the giant corporations sucked all its soul out.

I'm not one to miss the danger of the city--the perpetual wariness you had to adopt to survive. Mostly, maybe because I am Jewish, I miss the food.

Late last night I couldn't sleep--that's not unusual. I was staring at the ceiling and the image of a real New York bagel popped into my head.

You can get bagels anywhere now. But a real New York bagel you could only ever get in one place and at one time of the night.

Back in the 70s, the great delicatessen, Zabar's on 81th and Broadway was open until 11PM or midnight. It was a nice Saturday night to walk the mile-and-a-half down there and to buy lox, or cheese, or good pastrami. By the time your number was called and the countermen started screaming at you, lumbering diesel-smoked trucks delivering the Sunday New York Times on Saturday night would be throwing their piles of papers at the old ink-stained newsmen who owned the kiosks on nearly every corner.

I've seen great double-play combinations. Great NBA guards. Great three-card monte players. Their hands in motion moved like wild birds upon hearing a shotgun blast. 

None of their hands moved with anything like the speed of the newsies, as they'd assemble without error, the ten or twelve sections of the Times into one neat parcel.

Down on 80th and Broadway sat a dumpy little sawdust-floored Mecca of the bagel, H&H, managed by two Puerto Rican brothers who had sesame seeds in their veins and poppy seeds for eyes.

They were and the men who worked there were the nastiest people on Earth. I'm sure there were holocaust survivors who lived nearby who likened them to nazi guards--and the guards were regarded as kinder.

The trick, my old man taught me this, to dealing with the H&H guys was to be ruder than they. It was like two animals fighting. You had to prove you weren't scared. Then everything was ok.

My old man, like I said, taught me the ropes.

When you get up to the plexiglass, no eye-contact. Feel the outside of each bin for what bagels are hot. And then scream "Six onion. Two sesame. Four poppy." Pause. "No four sesame. Two onion. Four poppy. Two salt. That's what I said."

You never hand your money over. You toss it on the counter and leave. It didn't matter if you were two bucks over or two bucks short, this was all about asserting control. In fact, this ritual wasn't about bagels at all, really. It was about life.

I don't know if Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she went to Columbia Law learned this regimen. But I have a feeling she probably did. 

The routine wasn't really about rudeness or getting bagels or discerning which ones were hot out of the oven. It was about getting yours. Not being pushed around. Speaking up. Being just a bit more stalwart than the other guy. As my younger daughter would say, "Drinking cement and toughening up."

It was also about walking home, up the greatest street in the world, Broadway, past the junkies and the homeless and the teenagers in love and the ruffians from Manhattan Avenue. The Times under your arm, the ink of the Sunday magazine crossword waiting for your pen, stepping over drunks and nibbling on a salt bagel--still warm like from a womb.

That's all gone now. The newsstands are boarded up. H&H is a Verizon store. Zabar's keeps suburban hours.

But back in the 70s and 80s, things were different. We faced crime and drugs, economic default, a mad-man president chomping for a nuclear exchange with the Russians and more.

Yep. Those were the good old days.

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