Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
The aliens attack earth. Our last line of defense is a deep-sea submarine, a Navy prototype that can submerge to unfathomable depths. Deep below the ocean, beyond radio contact, alone and overwhelmed, global positioning software is useless. Connection to communication satellites is impossible. Breaching the surface the ship sets a course for the United States, arriving to witness miles of coastline engulfed in flames, cities devastated and the remnants of a mighty civilization reduced to wandering bands of looters. The alien hoard systematically eliminates the population, the few spared enslaved. An alien battleship appears on the horizon, the submarine dives. Flashing-red lights ghostly illuminate the sailors as they race through the ship. Sirens scream, battle stations are manned. But the alien craft does not pursue — cannot pursue. Something about the sea, the pressure deep underwater repels them. It’s the chink in the invader’s armor. The submarine captain smiles; there is hope.
By that point in my story I’m asleep. The fantasy never plays out past the initial conflict. In bed, hugging my pillow, imagining a submersible the size of an aircraft carrier, a complete and insular sunken city. New technology enables the ship to remain under water for months, re-circulating air and purifying ocean water to drink, harvesting the bounty of the sea for sustenance. Sometimes the captain will order the crew to surface near a deserted island and stock their ship with fresh produce. They crack open pistachio shells, savoring the taste of non-processed food, a brief respite from the everyday toil of fighting a superior enemy intent on their destruction.
That’s the setup, but the plot never develops. I’m fast asleep, bored by my own tall tale, before there’s any resolution. I may lack the imagination to become a science-fiction writer, but I’ll never be an insomniac.
The phallic symbolism of the impenetrable submarine isn’t lost on me. I saved Simon’s submarine from the alien forces out to destroy it, but I can’t keep it underwater forever. I’m going to have to allow him to come up for air and engage those great powers at some point.
I’m in bed, Simon sleeping between Helena and myself, my eyes are closed and I’m captaining the last submarine in the United States Navy. Above me are hostile forces, at my fingertips toasted pistachio nuts sprinkled in salt. My crew is looking at me for direction. They’re scared, but putting up a brave front. I’m eating nuts. They wait for my orders. Do we attack? Do we run and hide? What can we do? The crew turns to face me, confronts me, demands action, but it’s too late. I’m already asleep.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
32. AND A CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM
We dress Simon in overalls, an engineer’s jacket, trainmen’s cap and any T-shirt that has a locomotive printed on it, accepting his lifestyle choice and making sure he looks the part. I imagine he’ll grow up and move into the Live Steamer’s compound in Griffith Park. Simon will become stout and oily, hunched over and endlessly tinkering with expensive train models, Helena and I visiting him only on Sundays when he takes us for a ride around the tracks. He’ll preach the gospel of the iron horse, baptized in steam and live his life following the well laid-out path of the rails.
Simon watches Thomas the Tank Engine videos. We buy him miles of wooden train tracks and happy engines with smiling faces and English names. On his second birthday Grandpa gives him the Thomas the Tank Engine train table, the same tabletop that he worships at the Travel Town gift shop. I covet his faith, but he has already pulled that interest into the station and disembarked. His trains are retired to a plastic storage bin on the porch. The train table is a dumping ground for house clutter.
Thomas the Tank Engine loses its divinity and becomes just another toy, no different than the dozens of cars he chews tires off of or the construction trucks that no longer whistle and roll around the house after being thrown one too many times. Simon’s curiosity now turns to documentaries on insects, rocks, shells, the ocean and space. He wants to explore the physical world and beyond, play with airplanes and rocket ships and robots. The humble train still part of his playground, but neglected like a rusty jungle gym.
I miss the trains more than Simon. I miss our Sunday morning ritual: driving out to Live Steamers, standing in line with the other families, giving Simon the dollar to slip into the donation jar and boarding one of the many trains for the ten-minute journey. I know all the members of the Los Angeles chapter of Live Steamers and many of the parents with similarly obsessed children. I miss Simon sitting between my legs, holding my hand as the train rolls through dark, cool tunnels, then back out under the hot sun past the dry dirt and tangled vegetation at the base of the foothills. "Look at the gold mine!” My color commentary the same each week as we pass by miniature ghost towns and ride beneath trees with large rubber spiders tied to low-hanging branches and columns of gigantic, plastic army ants marching below them. "Here comes the crossing signal, wave at the passing train. Look how high up this bridge is!” Afterwards, I lift Simon up to the water fountain and we share a drink. Back in the car, warm with trapped, sun-baked air, we roll down the windows, turn on the radio and drive through the park to the Gene Autry Museum Café for a Li’l Buckaroo lunch. After eating, Simon slips off for his afternoon nap. I park in the shade, crack a book and read for the next hour.
It’s over with a word. On Sunday, I ask if he’s ready to leave for Live Steamers. "No," Simon says.
No is one of Simon’s first words, after "Mama," "Dada" and, for some inexplicable reason, "Bubble." No remains one of Simon’s favorite words. He says it softly, whispers it through a smile like chanting some mischievous incantation. He says it loudly, also smiling, relishing in being contrary. He says it through tears, on the ground, working through the three stages of a temper tantrum. He says it in a panic. He says it like a song, a prayer and a commandment. When I ask Simon if he’s ready to go to Live Steamers he says no without any emotion, flat and simply, as if it’s no big deal. That’s how casually he loses faith.
I still have faith that Simon is Jewish, even if centuries of Talmudic law and my own indifference to religion say otherwise. Some might say, "You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” but I never understood the wisdom of that maxim. How can you not have your cake and eat it? You have to have your cake to eat it. Logical dictates that "you can’t eat your cake and have it too.” I am lost in semantics, which also have subtle designs on Simon.
Heinie versus Tushie.
It sounds like some third-tier act on the marquee of an old vaudeville road show. But Heinie versus Tushie is serious, an unconscious battle raging for the religious orientation of my son. Well, it isn’t unconscious to me! I discern the vague codification, the hint of gentile flavoring to the word heinie, a word that Helena uses to describe my son’s tochis.
Tushie is a bastardization of the Yiddish tochis or buttock. It is the word my Grandma used when changing my diaper. She’d wipe my behind and then blow a raspberry on my naked tush. As a child, I used it to insult the girls I had a crush on. "You got a gushy tushie!” Such a malleable word, so descriptive, it captures the glory of the gluteus maximus with onomatopoeic poetry. It is the word my son will use to describe his hindquarters.
But Simon refers to his bottom as a heinie. That is the word he hears his Mommy say. I haven’t felt so emotionally blindsided since Simon was admitted to the hospital for jaundice as a newborn. It’s like a panic attack. Heinie. Stop! Heinie. I can’t breathe!
I never thought I’d feel such proprietary about my son’s ass. Funkadelic named one of its albums Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow, but what kind of mind will my boy have if he follows a heinie? I don’t want Simon to follow his heinie to church, baptism, confirmation, confession and communion — Christianity. If I lose Simon’s butt as a toddler what other parts of his body might fall away as he develops to adolescence and maturity? Have I won the foreskin and lost the war?
Simon is Jewish. It is important to me for reasons beyond my grasp. Being Jewish and uncircumcised, Simon is not officially Jewish. His Mother is a shiksa and his penis is treif. What is Simon? Simon is Schmuish. That’s not even funny anymore, if it ever was, not with Simon calling his tushie a heinie. Simon is a heathen. A heathen is an uncivilized or irreligious person, someone who has not heard the word of God and His Bible — my son the barbarian. Simon is an infidel. An infidel is one who opposes Christianity — my son the blasphemer. Christian, Jewish, heathen, infidel — where do all these words come from? What do they mean? Why do I have to open a dictionary to speak my mind? Why does Simon have to follow the Bible to be Jewish? I just want Simon to call his tushie a tushie.
"You got a dirty tushie,” I’d tell Simon, holding him upright while Helena changes his diaper.
"Poop comes out of my heinie,” he replies proudly.
"You got a dirty ass,” Helena says, adding another dimension to my struggle.
Tushie is wounded, battered and in retreat, but not yet defeated. I have all but given up on Simon using Yiddish words to describe his body parts or his state of mind, when a visit from his Grandma initiates the utterance of a word I can’t decipher. It sounds like "I ski mountains.” I ask Simon to repeat himself.
"I ski mountains,” he says.
Looking directly and patiently at me, as if speaking to a child, Simon lifts his hand and points his index finger at me to accentuate each beat. He speaks deliberately, "I … ski … moun … tains.”
Grandma is also speaking in tongues. "I’m Iskymountains,” she says after a long day trying to keep up with Simon.
"What did you just say?”
Oysgematert, which is Yiddish for beyond exhausted. Simon is speaking Yiddish! My uncut boy is more Jewish than I am. He’s talking like a ragman just off the boat, peddling his wares on the Lower East Side. There is continuity. The Jewish line goes on.
Even the battle of Heinie versus Tushie is turning. Heinie’s Waterloo is nursery school. Helena researches the cooperative preschools in the neighborhood. They are all progressive and exclusive, with absurd waiting lists and politically correct requirements. We begin the long process of begging for acceptance, visiting open houses and sending cards praising the schools and inserting a snapshot of Simon lighting the menorah in hopes that we might fulfill their Jewish quota.
Nursery school becomes our new obsession, our religion. Helena begins night classes to fulfill the prerequisite courses necessary to apply for nursing school. She is volunteering at the Los Angeles Free Clinic. Simon is no longer content to observe the other kids at the playground, he now wants to engage with them. He is becoming a social creature. Mommy and Daddy have to pretend to be religious, go to school, work or volunteer to feel a connection to something larger, but not Simon. He just watches a group of older children hitting a tree with sticks and says, "I’m going to play with those kids,” and then he is gone smacking the tree. He is ready for nursery school, ready to leave us to solve our spiritual dilemma alone. There are too many trees out in the world to hit.
Simon is accepted at Hilltop Nursery School. Helena is changing Simon’s dirty diaper, while I hold his hands. Simon looks at me and said, "Poop comes out of my tushie.”
"Tushie, that’s a new one,” Helena says, running a baby wipe up the crack of Simon’s little, round tush. "He must have learned that in nursery school.”
Words are a two-edged sword that unexpectedly cut. Words like marriage. Helena and I still aren’t married. She continues to turn down my proposals. What is marriage but a word? We are more than a word; we are a family. Helena isn’t my wife. I call her my wife because it’s easier in casual conversation than "this woman I knocked up and live with,” but I feel vaguely dishonest when I tell someone she’s my wife. Yet, Helena is my wife as Simon is Jewish, another word I play fast and loose with. Which brings me back to the unresolved question of religion.
Helena and I start going to the Orange Grove Meeting, a weekly gathering of the Religious Society of Quakers in Pasadena. The service is unlike anything I had ever been a part of. The congregation meets quietly for an hour. There is no sermon or minister. People stand and speak when compelled, sharing thoughts both topical and spiritual. The Quakers are involved in community service, which attracts Helena, who defines herself as an atheist. There are even some Jews in attendance. I have my issues, which I admit are personal, such as any time someone mentions Jesus Christ, quotes the New Testament or sings a hymn I want to run for the door. Helena and I volunteer for its Sparklers childcare program, which provides nondenominational spiritual lesson plans for the toddlers during meeting time. Whenever one of those kids says their parents are in church I cringe. “It’s a meeting house,” I correct them. Jesus Christ and Church may only be words, but they land like bricks at my feet erecting a wall that forever separates me from worship. Still, I enjoy my Sundays there. I’m happy to meet other families and watch Simon play with the girls in Sparklers, even if now he claims to like only boys — Mommy and Grandma are exceptions. I can’t say I feel as if I belong, because I can’t say I feel as if I belong anywhere, but I’d like to belong here. Even when I feel uncomfortable hearing people talk of God without sarcasm, I know it’s important to expose my family and myself to that which cannot be explained by rational inquiry. There is something exciting about the inexplicable, and the ability to open oneself to what is beyond reason is not only reasonable, it’s enlightening.
Simon doesn’t sleep through the night. He’s finally left our bed, though still wakes in the dark and crawls in with us before dawn. He needs special care at night, a ritual to prepare him to sleep in his own bed. He loves to have us read him stories, but after the book is closed and the lights are off, Simon needs Mommy or Daddy besides him in bed. He becomes contemplative before giving up the fight for consciousness and drifting off to sleep. One night he says to Helena, "I don’t want to be Jewish.” Helena asks why. "Too many bad things happen to Jews.”
How can a child understand the torments that the Jewish people suffered over five-thousand years? Where did he pick that up? Was he mocked on the playground? Could it have been from television, perpetually tuned to the news? Helena hates the news. It feeds her pessimism. She cites medical studies that suggest watching television is harmful to the developing mind of a toddler. My old friend television is no longer welcome in our home. Who needs its anti-Semitism? But maybe the blame for Simon’s fear is closer to home. Have I sabotaged my son’s Judaism after struggling with it for years simply by spending my Sundays with the Quakers?
"Simon, you know Daddy is Jewish,” I say, "and so are you.”
"No, I’m not. I’m Christian, like Mom.”
"I’m not Christian,” Helena buts in. "I’m an atheist.”
"Grandma is Jewish, Simon.”
Simon thinks for a moment.
"So, what are you?" I ask.
"I’m just Simon,” he says.
I can’t argue with that. He is just Simon, and that’s enough.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
31. LOOSE ENDS
Where was Jean Kennedy? I was now living in Los Angeles, just like her, and a member of a cult, just like her. We had so much catching up to do. I needed to see her. I needed to see her because I no longer could form a mental picture of Jean in my mind. I last saw her over a decade ago, visiting my sister, who had moved West with her newlywed husband now teaching at UCLA. Jean’s art education lead to a career selling lighting fixtures, but she was ambitious and studied waste management. Life was ripe with potential. Jean had a boyfriend and seemed happy. When I flew back East we grew apart by miles and life, but Jean remained a person with whom I would always be close, without awkwardness or hesitation. Yes, we lost touch, but I knew she was there, that I’d see her again, even if I couldn’t remember what she looked like. Then I learned Jean killed herself.
Liz got the news from a mutual friend. I tried to contact her. I needed to hear the news from its source, but never made the connection, and was left only with the knowledge that my friend committed suicide and I couldn’t even remember what she looked like. I’d never see her again. I’d never be able to laugh with her over my crush. I’d never be able to introduce her to Helena, let her hold Simon. And now even my memories of her were dying. I searched out old photos. There were some True Detective-styled pictures I took for a photography class foundation year at Parsons. Jean was menaced by a bulky attacker. She dressed in thrift-store polyester, a Pucci knockoff. Her makeup severe, exaggerating the mock terror in her face. I found an old Polaroid of Jean wearing a black wig teased in a giant bouffant, captioned with indelible marker: "Jean Kennedy, age 20, murderer.” Liz and I had similar mug shots copied from Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. We hung our photos on the wall like the FBI’s most wanted, another Unholy Three. Then no more pictures of Jean for ten years, until one of her dancing at my engagement party. She flew in from California. I had just turned thirty and was about to travel to Canada and marry Kate.
Now I live with the ocean and mountains, the paradise of Los Angeles, beautiful weather and causal living. But something is missing. Jean is missing.
Jean’s not the first of my friends to die. Others swore they’d not live to twenty-one and kept their promise. There were freak accidents, overdoses and AIDS. From my pets to my peers, I am too familiar with funeral services. I’m lucky to have made it with only a busted knee. There is so much waste. Life is delicate and we hammer it into little bits, a pointless, tedious and sad mess. As long as you’re alive there’s hope. Things can change. I stopped being an adolescent by middle age. I’m still growing. I forged a career out of nothing, found a woman I love and who loves me and started a family. I removed myself from New York City to make a new start out West. I even tried to embrace my religion, any religion, to build a moral foundation for my fledgling family, to prevent Simon from being what he is genetically preordained to be: just like his father, lost. I could pull myself out from the ghetto of pornographic publications and into the legitimate world of trade and consumer magazines. I could even resist my natural passivity to end a pathetic marriage, finding true love with Helena. But I failed at the higher calling of religion and God and faith. It’s not that I don’t believe in a higher power, it’s just that I can’t connect with one. He doesn’t answer when I call. Why is Jean dead? What about all my friends taken so young? How about suffering on a grand scale, what’s up with that? I love God, the concept of God, but the reality of religious institutions which house Him, purports to exhibit Him, as if syndicating the ultimate Dear Abby columnist in exchange for my observance of its arcane rituals, well, that doesn’t connect. I feel like a child again, turning my bed into a fort supplied with Sweet Tarts and a pile of comic books. It made me feel secure then, but it wasn’t so good for my teeth. I feel silly keeping up with Spider-Man as an adult. I love Spidy, and I’m happy the friendly neighborhood web-slinger is still swinging through the canyons of Manhattan for those who need him, I just don’t believe in superheroes anymore. Maybe I’ll never find what I’m looking for, and maybe that’s the point.
It’s depressing to look back on a life littered with death. Jean is stuck in time, immature and unable to grow. I try to reach out to her, but there are only severed ties. My dead friends followed the Tyranny of Cool to its logical conclusion. Cool, cooler, coolest: death.
I came close to killing myself plenty of times. When I was a teenager I used to drink and drive like an amusement park ride. I smashed my parent’s car, strangers’ cars and totaled a friend’s car. Then I streamlined my self-destructive behavior with drugs, which cost less than a car and moved faster. I was even hit by a car, but that didn’t stop me from getting wasted at night and roaming Manhattan’s dark streets with sunglasses on. Still, the closest I came to deliberately killing myself was finding Kate and my friend on the roof of our apartment building. Like people who have died and been resuscitated, I felt as if I was floating out of my body. I had to leave; the rage, humiliation and sorrow was too much to deal with, and yet I couldn’t ignore it. I had to extinguish it or be consumed by it. Dealing with reality was not an option. Instead of jumping off the ledge and kissing the concrete, I chose to shut down and die another way.
There is nothing romantic about death. There is no revelation, no sign of God’s will, no transcendence, just a physical experience that extends beyond our mental capacity to comprehend. Death, like life, is too much for the human mind to manage and we feedback with metaphor, simile and other conceits in a feeble attempt to grasp what is forever beyond our reach. Birth also employs the poetic, especially if that poet doesn’t have children. The childless imbues the child as a thing of perfection, beauty and enlightenment. But parents know children are not otherworldly. Quite the opposite, they are a product of this world, wonderfully innocent but selfish and often cruel. Death, like birth, can teach us something. It makes clear that life is for the living. I may have shut down, but I was still alive and over time, difficult as it may have been, I escaped the shackles of coolness, like a modern-day Moses: "Let my coolness go!” Moses died before reaching Canaan, and while I’m uncomfortable with continuing this absurd allusion, perhaps I will never resolve my spiritual dilemma and like Moses not live to see that Promised Land. It’s a prize better to strive for than achieve. Again, maybe that’s the point.
Living in Los Angeles I am constantly reminded of Jean Kennedy and that keeps things in perspective. I live close to the Dresden, a kitsch nightclub where we shared cocktails in a round red-leather booth. The downtown skyline is visible from my front door. Jean lived downtown. When I came to visit her she was staying in a nondescript apartment complex, cars vandalized during the recent Rodney King riots abandoned outside. I looked Jean up in my address book when we arrived in Los Angeles. I thought maybe I’d drive by her place. I wanted to see her street again to jumpstart my memory. Every now and then, cruising a boulevard or passing a storefront, restaurant or bar that looks familiar, I wonder if I was there with Jean. Or are those sites memorable from television or movies or maybe it’s simply a longing for connection to a dead past. I want to pull the two parts of my life together, somehow find that string that ties everything up neatly. Since I never saw Jean’s body, never went to her funeral, can’t talk to her dead parents, never met her family in Chicago, I allow myself the fantasy that she could still be alive. There’s a chance I’ll see some middle-aged, dark-haired Irish beauty with an arty sense of style walking down the street and it’d be Jean. She’d be alive. I’d bring her home and introduce her to my family. It would be like we never parted, we’d pick up right where we left off, except that she is departed, gone, dead, a rotting corpse or scattered ashes. There’s no hope for Jean. There’s no God or religion or faith that can bring her back, redeem the waste of her death. Simon’s penis was just a catalyst, his foreskin like the red cape of a matador fanning my rage towards religion and its answers to unanswerable questions. I love God, just as I love superheroes and good triumphing over evil and the nourishing regularity of routine. Religion I cannot abide. I respect those who worship, who can find worth, comfort and direction in their mythologies. I envy them even, but for me it is just so much storytelling. I like a story with ambiguity, not one that puts a collar around my neck and leads me around like an obedient dog. I wish I could be religious, I really do, but I don’t have the one crucial tool to make it work. Faith. I have faith in my family and loved ones, in Helena, Simon, in the world and people in general. I even have faith in myself, faith in God. I have faith in art, literature and music to enrich me. I have faith in my computer to boot up when I turn it on, faith that my ballpoint pen will flow and fill the blank pages of my journal. I have faith in yoga, my daily exercises that sturdy my bad knee. I have faith in television and movies, faith in DVDs and CDs, to entertain and distract me. I have faith in food, sweets, bread and cheese to fill me. I have faith in diapers, clothing, shoes and sneakers. They all have their place in the great design. I’m skeptical by nature, but not a cynic; I have faith. But I don’t have faith in religion, which brings me to the end of my quest.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
30. ALL ABOARD!
God isn’t invited this Sunday. A year has passed since we started up with deities and synagogues and a desire to become constructive members of the community, any community. In that time we lost God, gave up on synagogues and are more isolated than ever in Los Angeles, with few friends and less relations. Our last gasp at an approximation of observance is the Ethical Society of Santa Monica.
They meet in the basement of the Santa Monica Library, only blocks away from the beach. Deep in the bowels of the library is an auditorium with rows of red-felt chairs and a high stage with a lone podium. There are a dozen people sprinkled around the room, no more than two or three seated together. Simon runs screaming down the steep incline to the stage. Stern heads, chalky faces with gray hair or no hair exposing spotty weathered scalps, turn and stare unsmilingly. The meeting has yet to begin. We take seats. Helena holds her breast like a gun aimed at Simon’s mouth ready to plug it if he let loose with another outburst.
The lecture is entitled "Humanism in Art,” which interests me as an amateur cartoonist. I’d much rather spend a Sunday morning talking culture than reciting moral myths. Ethical Culture may be my religion. Of course I soon realize Ethical Culture is not a religion. There is no God or higher power, nothing even remotely spiritual. It is quite the opposite. Ethical Culture is a society of atheists who believe in an ethical and moral commitment to their fellow man and community. A mousy-looking artist on stage for a half-hour preaches the joys of being a second-generation atheist to a roomful of committed atheists — that is "Humanism in Art.”
The crowd of seniors frequently interrupts, standing and respectfully raising their hands for the young gentlemen at the podium to repeat what he just said. The speaker is getting annoyed. Simon, who has been quietly sucking on Helena’s breast, frees himself from her nipple with a pop and struggles for freedom. Helena takes him upstairs to read some books, leaving me behind. I lean back, stretch my legs and fold my arms, enjoying the brief respite from parenthood, when the man on stage says something that makes me take notice.
"Most people in this country are what I call 'religious hedonists,’ their belief in God is solely to make them feel good.”
I sit up. That’s what I am, a religious hedonist! I am not observant enough for the religious sects, although I respect their beliefs and their rituals fascinate me, and I am too guilt-ridden to be a hedonist, although I enjoy the feast in small bites. But put the two together and that’s a faith with possibilities.
My epiphany is short lived. I could join the Ethical Culture Society and befriend these old radicals in their twilight years. Soon Helena and I would be the only ones attending monthly gatherings, our fellow congregants rotting in their plots. Then, after many lonely years, some curious young couple might surprise us one Sunday in search of meaning, but finally be repelled by the hardness of our hearing. God is dead. His temple lay in ruins. The last straw of community, with which we hoped to forge a foundation to hold Simon and ourselves up with a sense of service, is crumbling. Ethical Culture offers no community. People don’t gather round and sing songs to the absence of God.
We have come to the end of our religious road and find no God, no temple, no community, no religion, no devotion, not even of a homemade variety. I am an atheist in denial, a secular Jew, a religious hedonist, and that is a lonely existence. We want something for Simon to believe in and find nothing. Then Simon shows us the way.
Griffith Park is one of the few natural sites in the fabrication of Los Angeles. It is the largest municipal park in the nation and was donated to the city by Colonel Griffith Jenkins Griffith in the late Eighteen Hundreds. He wasn’t able to sell the five-square-mile plot because it was cursed. Whatever evil spirits may lurk in its chaparral-covered foothills they don’t meddle with our subcompact, which speeds through the winding roads past pony rides, a merry-go-round, playgrounds, hiking trails, bridle paths, golf courses, the Deco Griffith Observatory, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Travel Town transportation museum and the Autry Museum of Western Heritage.
Simon adores Griffith Park: the playground with its seesaws, spaceship-shaped jungle gyms and a sandbox larger than the concrete parks in Brooklyn. He chases frightened sheep and collides with indifferent goats at the petting zoo. The "Li’l Buckaroo,” a bed of golden shoestring French fries covered by a soggy frozen pizza served at the Autry Café, is Simon’s manna from Heaven. He can gaze for hours before the glass wall separating him from the roomful of electric trains creeping around miniature white-capped lakes painted on papier-mâché mountain-strewn tabletops inside one of the warehouse spaces at Travel Town railroad museum.
Trains, planes and automobiles, any means of transportation with an engine is an obsession for Simon. In the nature versus nurture debate, Simon falls like a Mack truck on the side of nature. I wouldn’t drive our car for the first three months we lived in Los Angeles, and I suffer motion sickness putting on my seatbelt. Helena has no interest in locomotion of any sort, and despises the car culture of California in which people use their SUVs to take out the trash. Simon discovers the wheel independently of his stationary parents, then another wheel and then three and four, and railroad tracks, and flight on an airfoil. There is no greater spot on earth than Travel Town, a graveyard of rusty steam engines inviting kids to climb all over them. Inside the gift shop is not one but two train tables competing for attention, Thomas the Tank Engine in this corner and Brio in that corner. The cash register strategically placed in the center. Punch-drunk children stagger from one side of the gift shop to the other until they pass out on the nearest train table and wash cattle cars, gondola cars, boxcars, engines, tenders and cabooses with drool, their eyes rolling ecstatically into their skulls. When I reach for Simon to take advantage of his rapturous fit and make good our getaway, he screams. His dull eyes turn fierce, he flails and falls limp to the ground in a stage-one tantrum. As my friend Alan Broadman prophesied back at Sammy’s Noodle House, Simon is exhibiting the Martin Luther King meltdown. I repel in horror, weakly giving in to his demands, and, stepping back, notice several Malcolm X tantrums and a few children in total jihad against their parents trying to forcibly remove them from their precious trains.
Travel Town, with its retired engines rising from the ground like steam-powered Easter Island totems, is only a toe stuck into the waters of bliss for Simon. The full plunge into paradise is Live Steamers. On Sundays, the hobbyists who make up the Live Steamers chapter of Los Angeles open up their clubhouse for all to ride free on the backs of their scale-model collectibles. These men are beefy and bearded yet elegantly straddle their creations puttering over acres of track. Live Steamers isn’t affiliated with Travel Town, in fact there is bad blood between the two sects. These independent train-obsessed practitioners are the embodiment of the western frontier, the last remnants of the pioneer spirit gathering each weekend from their homes in the Valley to tinker with toys. To Simon they are gods.
We park in the dirt lot and cross the befouled horse trail to the entrance of the Live Steamers’ compound. It is our first visit, ten o’clock on another bright and warm Sunday morning. The gates are open and we walk past the metal railings to herd the crowds, but the waiting area is empty. The only people present are members of Live Steamers, and they are either far off inspecting the line or riding their small engines, rollicking around the tracks. It looks like fun. Simon points to a train clicketty-clacketting past us, a trail of bitter smoke wagging like a tail trailing behind it.
I catch the attention of a grizzled man with a bulbous gut that extends over his narrow waistline and defiantly holds its ground a foot and a half in front of him. He wears a floppy straw hat that has a ring of dark grease where it rests on his head. Its brim is blackened by coal smoke. His eyes are blue and clear, his face spotted with patches of coarse white hair that grows without any discernible style. He gives us a friendly smile and tip of the hat.
"We don’t start riding until eleven,” he says, anticipating my question, then quietly enjoys the fine weather and the sharp smell of fuel in the air.
Over the man’s shoulder I can see the scale-model trains, some elevated, being worked on, others chugging around the property. There is a full-sized caboose and several old passenger cars dotting the miniature tracks, a small roundhouse, railroad crossings, ghost towns and ramshackle stations. The rides don’t start for an hour, but I ask if we may look around.
"Nah, they live here.”
I nod, smile and take Simon’s hand. We turn around slowly and follow a horse trail up into the dry foothills and look down over Live Steamers. They live here? Are these train enthusiasts so committed to their project that they have given up all connections to family, friends, community and business to oil their machines and spend their days roving on the backs of their mechanical companions? That takes faith. Simon has no time for our old gods. He is a Futurist in love with modernity, speed and machines. He prays at the altar of Live Steamers.
Every Sunday we make our pilgrimage to his church. We line up with the other parents, compelled to this place of worship by the steely will of their little Futurist children, and pay tribute to the iron gods who expose their great power and glory as they carry us through the Elysian Fields of Live Steamers. We ride through dank tunnels, over the crisscross construction of trestle bridges and past the dinging and flashing red lights of railroad crossings. We are ordered to keep our hands and feet close to our sides and refrain from any photography, as plastic figurines of hobos, prospectors, farm animals and insects stationed in shrubbery, miniature towns and whistle stops patrol the grounds. This is the final stop in our spiritual travels. We are prisoners of a cult.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
29. ROCK OF AGED
Music was my religion. I prayed on bended knees before gatefold albums, seeking knowledge in their cryptic design. My temple was a turntable, records the pulpit where I spun the good word. I first heard the gospel on AM radio. I got goose bumps listening to the testimony of C.W. McCall drawl his epic tale of rebellious truckers, "Convoy." When the renegade tracker-trailers crash through a New Jersey tollbooth — "Let those truckers roll. Ten-four!” — I got chills. That was my first religious experiences, followed by "Monster Mash" by Bobby Fuller, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s "Get Down” and the sweet utopia of "The Candy Man,” swooned by Sammy Davis, Jr. I learned of racial tolerance from Cher’s "Half Bred.” The Charlie Daniels Band repelled Satan in the South when "The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Evil could be vanquished and good triumphant.
Then radio changed. The hedonism of disco was god. My pop popped. Switching to FM only made matters worse. The format may have been free, but deejays programmed music that oppressed me. Songs like "Iron Man” by Black Sabbath were terrifying. The seesawing bent guitar notes that herald the tune, its demonically distorted vocals, it was as if the tinny speakers opened the Gates of Hell. But what did I expect from a band that darkened the day of the Lord. There was overt evil on the airwaves. The more ambiguously titled Led Zepplin, Rush and AC/DC in time also proved enemies. Their likenesses crudely painted on the backs of the jeans- jackets worn by the bullies who beat me up.
I turned away from the wickedness of radio and sought sanctuary in my parent’s record collection. Their tastes ran the gamut from show tunes to classical, but I found oddities that spoke, or sang, to my spiritual hunger. There was a lone Beatles album, probably a present from a swinging friend. Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass provided aural immoral pleasures with "Whipped Cream & Other Delights.” "Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis and “My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane furthered my transcendental quest. Studying liner notes, following sidemen to groups they lead, I sunk deeper into obscure worship. While friends were praising the mysticism of the Electric Light Orchestra, I was alone in my room witnessing the scratchy sermons of Lead Belly. My journey led me into monasticism, the world beyond my wax testaments was false and foreboding. I had no interest in community. It was television that brought me back, television that introduced me to an anarchist and an antichrist.
Before the local news signed off to the network anchor there was the human-interest spot, something soft and fuzzy or funny to end the newscast with a self-satisfied aw shucks or condescending ha-ha. On that fateful night the palette-cleansing segment was on a silly new musical trend out of England, punk rock.
Johnny Rotten leaned on a microphone stand like it was a scepter, but he didn’t look royal in tatters, torn clothes and hair making a mad dash from his bony head. Even on the television, beneath the snide voiceover, I could hear the band’s mammoth sound. They looked like Fagin’s boys and I wanted to be their Oliver Twist. I ignored the smirks on the news team and their condescending remarks. I was off to the record store to buy Never Mind the Bollocks … Here’s the Sex Pistols. I had no idea what that title meant, but it didn’t matter. I was back in the present. There was someplace where I could belong.
Punk rock offered a loser like me entry into a group of losers. It wasn’t much of a community, but it was mine. If I saw an art-damaged freak across the street I knew we would be friends. Instead of carrying a Bible like seminary students, we had band buttons pinned to our ratty lapels and hair unnaturally colored, Doc Martens and standoffish grins. Our experience with the divine shared sweating to a live band in a suffocatingly hot club.
There was no place to stand, and even if you could a shoulder knocked you off your footing. The Clash was arms-length on stage. I bobbed around them on the sea of bodies. I knew ever song they played from wearing out their records, but now heard it live as they shook and sweated and spit like ejaculating erections. I had a hard-on too, metaphorically. This was my illumination, shared with a congregation of slam-dancers whose eyes shined with the same revelation. The power of the music, the damageable volume, the lyrical chant of prayer — it was a religious experience. I left the show born again, saved as no temple could save me.
Misfits who communicated by fanzine and independently produced singles, broke into smaller groups, proclaiming the good word in bands with names like the Swamp Goblyns. That was my first band. I was in art school with Liz who was putting together a group. They didn’t have a drummer, so I was recruited. I never played the drums before. Nobody in the band knew how to play their instruments. It didn’t matter. When the Swamp Goblyns broke up another band took its place and I lugged my heavy kit like a cross from one illegal nightclub to the next. We were outlaws spreading a gospel that nobody wanted to hear.
Punk ran its course, a course that terminated in the malls of angst-ridden suburbia, where it belongs. It became just another pose, if it was ever anything else. The punks that I respected either grew up and moved on or died. I didn’t want to rot in the same old bars. I made up creative reasons for missing a friend’s show at some dive before dawn. Then I stopped even trying to come up with an excuse.
Once again I had lost faith, but not completely. I had my records and I listened to them religiously. It isolated me. I was a pastor without a flock and I missed the music. I missed the perspiration and the odor and the heat of other people who shared my beliefs. My music collection was reborn as compact discs. The sound was clearer, the package smaller. My world had shrunk and digitalized. It broke off into bits and bytes floating in space, apart from the spirit of community that drew me to it in the first place. I want that community back, that sense of belonging, more than I want God or a good beat that I can dance to. I want to hear the music again.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
28. WEAKENED WARRIORS
The road into Griffith Park is decorated with thousands of colorful lights at Christmastime. Drivers are invited to slowly ride through this electric wonderland after sunset. Simon can’t get enough of it. It’s like a menorah, but on an epic scale. Traditional scenes of Santa Claus on his sleigh pulled by reindeer delivering toys to all the good girls and boys of the world are erected next to surfers riding electrical waves of flashing lights, Indians squatting by illuminated teepees, body-builders lifting bright bulb barbells on Muscle Beach and even a jet plane taking off from LAX. Simon is fascinated by the pageantry. "Christmas light!” he shouts spotting a brightly decorated house as we drive home. My family always celebrated Christmas. Once we lit the menorah for Hanukkah, but our cat curiously sniffed the lit candles and burnt her whiskers. That was our last Hanukkah.
Christmas trees never hurt anyone. Simon gets Hanukkah and Santa Claus. That’s the Schmuish way. While I comfortably settle into the quasi-spiritual life of Schmudaism, Helena continues the struggle with faith that originally attracted us to organized religion. Nothing has changed. I am Jewish, as I was before when Helena accused me of not being Jewish. Simon is uncircumcised and Schmuish, with Hanukkah gelt and Christmas presents under a tree strung with glowing lights and dripping with delicate ornaments. I identify my son as Jewish without the burden of going to a synagogue — or even a deli — not keeping kosher or having a stranger cut his penis with a knife.
Being that the Schmuish population of Los Angeles is three, Schmudaism doesn’t offer the sense of community that initially drew us towards devotion. More than God, or the ritual of prayer, or the template for moral life provided by religions, Helena needs to work towards a greater good, especially after watching the World Trade Center crumble to ash from our kitchen window. God was one of the casualties of 9/11. A black cloud rose from the debris after the towers fell and cloaked Lower Manhattan, the stench of burnt jet fuel, molten steel girders and charred bodies drifting over the water and cloaking South Brooklyn like an omen. "Something terrible is going to happen,” Helena predicted. "Something terrible has happened,” I responded. "No," she corrected me. “It’s going to get worse.”
If nobody can hate like Helena, as Tony Millionaire declared, that hate has undergone a transformation since the birth of Simon. Helena’s disdain, her critical eye, her judgmental dismissal of what she deems foolish and pointless, is of another era, a more innocent time. When it’s just you, when your responsibilities stop at the border of your own skin, cynicism is easy. Helena hated because she didn’t care. Her hate was more a caustic humor. But there is nothing remotely funny about the dangers lurking in a post-9/11 world, not for new parents. Helena can no longer cavalierly sneer at life’s risks. It isn’t just her life anymore. Everything she hates — the cruelty and uncertainty of life — is now something to fear because it can strike down her baby. Helena moves from indifference to passionate motherhood, physically tied to the world by the tether of her child. All she can think about is protecting Simon from myriad dangers inherent in the life we gave him.
Helena is reborn. Her newfound spiritual commitment demands change and community involvement, not dusty scripture and a relationship with an absentee God. With her call of a social gospel my beloved Schmuadism is damned, neutered before having an opportunity to be fruitful and multiply. There is no place for silliness in Helena’s new world.
Helena makes me take an online religious quiz, a Belief-O-Matic, as branded by BeliefNet.com. It asks multiple-choice questions.
What is the number and nature of the deity (God, gods, higher power)? Choose one:
Only one God — a corporeal spirit (has a body), supreme, personal God Almighty, the
Only one God — an incorporeal (no body) spirit, supreme, personal God Almighty, the
Multiple personal gods (or goddesses) regarded as facets of one God, and/or as separate gods
The supreme force is the impersonal Ultimate Reality (or life force, ultimate truth,
cosmic order, absolute bliss, universal soul), which resides within and/or beyond all
The supreme existence is both the eternal, impersonal, formless Ultimate Reality, and
personal God (or gods)
No God or supreme force, or not sure, or not important.
None of the above
She finds this site through an atheist link and expects her results to confirm her atheism. However, Helena ranks low for atheism, only about forty percent. Her answers define her mostly as Quaker. Quakerism, like the natty dresser on the cereal box I never buy, is not a spiritual pursuit I expect to evangelistically knock on my door. I take the test and learn that I’m an atheist. That oddly angers her. She is the atheist. I am the Jew, the Schmew, someone who gives lip service to God as long as I can do everything I want to do, like eat pork and keep the Sabbath unholy. I am like the great mass of Americans who pray to a country under God and never set foot in a house of worship. I guess we’re all atheists in denial.
Helena is back on the religious track, less to pray to God than to satisfy the moral obligation that consumes her after Simon’s birth. She seeks a community of like-minded individuals to change the world. We became weekend warriors on a new quest for religious fulfillment, one that not only lays a moral foundation but builds upon it, a calling for social action, actively participating in helping those in need.
The first and most obvious point of entry is the Unitarian church. "Come to get married, stay to worship,” reads the banner on the Unitarian homepage. "I got married by a Unitarian minister,” I remind Helena, "and you saw how well that turned out.”
If Helena can seriously consider the lengthy and complicated process of converting to Judaism, I can spend a couple of hours in a church. But the spirit of Jesus clings to churches like the odor of raw onions and chopped liver did to my Grandpa Fred’s rubbery lips. I cannot bring myself to worship Jesus Christ, a nice Jewish boy with some radical ideas about the relationship between man and God that got him nailed to a cross, but a stranger to me. I believe in playing the cards dealt and mine have a Star of David design on the back with King Solomon leading the face cards. Jesus was my muse as a young scribbler bored in school. I decorated my first apartment with cheap Christian tapestries bought on Fourteenth Street. Jesus was an affectation, an infatuation, but never a serious affair. I am Jewish, Schmuish, whatever. The J word, but I’m not that J word.
My palms are sweating and slipping over the steering wheel as I drive the family downtown to the Unitarian church on Easter Sunday. I’m reminded of forcing myself out of bed to set out for some dead-end job that I hate. I don’t want to do it, but willingly accept my fate. Unlike those miserable days making copies in the mailroom, filling containers with salad at the Red Apple deli counter and working stock at a liquor store, I don’t have to go to church. I have no financial commitment to church. I am scared of church. It is not a place for Jews, Schmews or my family. And yet here I am, on this sunny Easter Sunday, driving my family to a Unitarian church to observe the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Good Friday is a holiday I can celebrate: it’s the day we got Him. That’s a bad joke. Going to Easter services is just a joke.
We park in the church lot, a chain-link fence around a cracked asphalt square, and walk across the street to a decrepit stone building. It is early morning, but loud music blares from dark, open windows down the block. People are lingering on the corner and trash collects in the gutters, festering in the hot, still air. I am shaking, but not because of the bad neighborhood.
The church is of Southwestern design. We enter into a shady and cool courtyard and are greeted by two friendly women. They give us name-tags and prayer books, which I hold awkwardly. In a side room off of the chapel a table is set with coffee and cookies. There are several round tables with empty chairs. I give Simon a cookie, refusing to take the sweet bait. I will not be won over that easy.
The worshippers collect in small clusters like debris orbiting the sun of free food. Homeless men wait for the meal promised after the service. They are dirty and smelly and solitary in their squalor. Equally isolated but cleaner, are a group of elderly men, thin and dressed in worn workmen’s clothes. They are reading communist newsweeklies.
Standing out, as I image we do, is a young, fresh-faced couple. The woman wears an Easter bonnet. They are the only people not working for the church that are smiling. There is also a lesbian couple, middle-aged Spanish women with hard square faces and blocky short bodies. They are speaking to the minister. The minister alone looks as if he belongs. He is tall, reverent, with well-coiffed white hair and a long, ornately embroidered robe that appears to have a cross on it, but the design is so busy that any number of symbols and signs could be excavated from its decorative muddle if need be. If I look hard enough I’m sure I could trace a Star of David, but I don’t want to.
We take seats in the back for a hasty exit. I am not going to bail on Helena, but Simon is likely to find the proceedings boring and vocally protest. The service begins with a candle-lighting prayer. The minister asks if anyone in the congregation wants to come up and light a candle for a sick friend or loved one. A tall man stands up and carefully makes his way down the aisle of metal folding chairs to the pulpit. He is uncomfortably thin, but the free meal isn’t likely the impetus for his visit. He wears a dirty plaid shirt buttoned to the collar, still with plenty of breathing room around his scrawny neck. The shirt is tucked into dirty gray trousers without a belt. Oversized plastic sunglasses cover his regular eyewear and a majority of his long bony face, which is hairless, except at the chin where a gray beard hangs low and looks ironed flat. The freak aesthete turns to the congregation, a long match between his extended fingers. He holds it like a torch before speaking, "I light this candle for the English-speaking, the Spanish-speaking, the Korean-speaking and sign-language-speaking people — may they all get along.” Amen.
Helena leaves me alone in the back of the church when Simon gets antsy. There is a back room where the children play with a wooden Noah’s Ark and menagerie of plastic animals. Someone is reading them stories from the Bible. Nothing approximating religion occurs where I sit. Easter is the topic of the sermon, naturally, but as an emblem of renewal. Poor Jesus is shut out.
And so am I. Freaks, rejects, losers, seekers and bums all impatiently wait until the service is over and the food served. These are my people, a community with which I can connect. The name Jesus Christ is never invoked, but Jesus is lurking between each word and every gesture of the service. I can’t blame Jesus for my discomfort. It is the smell. There is an odor of decay to the church, which is rundown and neglected like buildings of poverty, but the reek is more profound than physical. It comes up from the floorboards and seeps through the walls filling the air with a heavy decrepit aroma that makes me gag. I recognize that scent; it followed me from suburban temples to city synagogues and now across the landmass of the United States to tap me on the shoulder on Easter Sunday, jabbing its malodorous fingers up my nostrils, down my throat, stirring up my stomach acids, making me sick. I have no appetite for the table full of free food after the service. Strangers come to introduce themselves, bend over Simon and tickled his chin. I feel nauseous, religion like an allergen. I want to get back to my nice Schmuish home.
But Schmudaism is just another lie; another stinking pile of garbage that I pretend smells like fresh bagels. Religion is a carcass that only exhibits a sign of life when flogged by
its miserable followers too bereaved to acknowledge its passing. Religion is appealing when I don’t try to be religious, but once I open up those pearly gates, once I try to walk on water, raise the dead or simply turn water into wine and bathe in good spirits, I feel lame, lifeless and dirty. I believe in God, but religion isn’t God. I don’t know what God is. He’s not the cartoon that filled the margins of my schoolbooks, the vengeful ruler of the Bible or the being of love and forgiveness offered by Christianity. He’s not Mohammed or Buddha or the Great Calculator that scared my schoolmate. He might not even exist, but I like to think God does, and so I do. What ego, what chutzpah: God exists because I think He should. Religion exists, but I don’t think I like it very much. Stubbornly I hold firm in the belief that religion can be meaningful as ritualized group therapy, moral compass and helping hand out to the community. It’s just an empty gesture to me.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
27. THE BEARD
When a child I fancied myself a philosopher. The Big Questions intrigued me, of course, but my thinking was obsessed less in my head than with what was outside of it, specifically, hair. It was a time when hair, beautiful hair, gave life body and shine. The world was in love with hair, the hairier the better. Except my world, which was a land of the bald: my father, his father and my mother’s father. Philosophical discipline tempered observation to conclude that not all fathers were bald, however, despite the praise leveled at my thick head of hair by barbers, I knew my future was with the hairless.
Freud had castration anxiety, and I developed a theory of hair-loss anxiety, which is really just an extension of his Oedipal complex. We want to kill the father who genetically cursed us to male-pattern baldness and marry our mother whose unconditional love is not blinded by the glare off our hairless pate. Thinning hair, I opined, was the most traumatic experience for a man. Like an unpublished chapter of On Death and Dying by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the stages of accepting hair loss begin with numbness. "I can’t feel my hair! Where are my precious locks?” That is followed by denial and isolation. “This is not happening to me! I must hide, become a hermit, anything rather than let people see me in this naked state!” Then comes anger. "I curse God! His hair turned white, but it’s still flowing like wine at one of His son’s parties.” Next, there is depression. "It’s all over for me. Gone is my anchorman-like pelt. I’m a worthless, hairless monster!” Finally, comes acceptance. "What the hell, I’m hungry. Guess I’ll make myself a sandwich.” If a man can process the great loss of his hair, come to terms with the freakish thing he has become, jettison all hope of ever again recapturing his youthful hairy past, then nothing can ever hurt him. He survived the hair wars, a veteran who has seen the ugly side of testosterone. Once he throws away his crutches — whether toupees, hats, Rogaine and Minoxidil — only then can he truly stand tall.
Further exploring my hypothesis, I was drawn to facial hair. Why would man forfeit the smooth contours of the hairless cheek for the unruly growth of a beard? There was a macho quality that I couldn’t deny, especially after interviewing my G.I. Joe, with lifelike hair. When my questions got too personal, though, he used his kung-fu grip, a rebuttal to which I was unequipped to respond. But my old G.I. Joe’s face was already spotty with hair loss, leaving his rugged, square chin pockmarked like acne scars.
On full-sized Joes, facial hair looked alarmingly like pubic hair. There must be some psychological connection between the puberty that litters a man’s penis and his chin. I put baldness and beards together and eureka! With the loss of one’s hair comes a loss of control that is psychologically regained by the cultivation of facial hair. Despite the fact that bald men with beards look like those childhood portraits of faces that when turned upside down expose a new, funnier face, there is still a sense of victory over nature. You may have taken my windblown tresses, but I counter your cruelty by growing whiskers: goatees, Van Dykes, mustaches that come to a greased curl at the end like some silent-era screen villain. I laugh at the ravages of time, my smile framed by a kinky brush so hearty it can hold my lunch.
I ignored anomalies such as bearded women at sideshows and hippies that had the best of both worlds, with their long hair and bushy beards. Even though I came to these conclusions not long after the Summer of Love, the Upper East Side of Manhattan had more bald men than freaks and flower children. My model was limited to personal observations. Regardless, I would never be so foolish as to think I could distract from my receding hairline by the diversion of some strategically placed facial hair.
Even before I started to notice hair clogging my shower drain and my once shaded scalp exposed to the harsh rays of the sun, I contemplated facial hair. It was easier to grow a beard than shave, and my ambitions are nothing if not lazy. I was also tired on the verbal abuse suffered on the street, riding mass transit, anywhere my four eyes came face-to-face with the public. "Hey, Woody Allen!” "You Superman?” I didn’t think I looked particularly like Woody Allen. I’m taller. It’s the glasses and the Jewish features. All us Jews look the same. But Superman … I’m not that tall. I’ll admit I’ve got a nice physique, but I never liked that bumpy muscular look. Again, it’s the glasses. I experimented with round, metal frames, putting aside my beloved Ray-Bans. This feint was flouted by shouts of, "John Lennon!” What no John Denver?
When Simon was born I was clean-shaven and returned to wearing my black plastic glasses. I kept the glasses but lost the clean. Who had time for hygiene? Soon I had a full beard, which after 9/11 made me look as if I sympathized with the terrorists. That would have been acceptable, but the gray that sprouted over my chin just made me look old. It didn’t help that I was chronically exhausted and starting to carry a paunch, rolling into middle age with all the coordination that Simon was showing in his crib. But nobody called me Woody Allen anymore. I did get Steven Spielberg. Again, it’s the Judaism.
The beard made me look Jewish, more observantly Jewish. But in fact the beard became a beard to hide my Judaism. It gave me a pious appearance without having to get my hands dirty in prayer. I could buy candles for my menorah and by the way I look imply a devout relationship to the box full of wax, even if Simon was blowing them out like on a birthday cake. I liked the pretense of propriety more than the drudgery and rules of true religious observance. What did I get for bowing down to a higher power? I got a backache and my son’s foreskin in the crosshairs. What do I get as a Schmew? I get a beard that protects me from ridicule and religion.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
26. ANOTHER BEAUTIFUL DAY IN PARADISE
Less than two months after the attacks of 9/11 my family takes flight. We leave from Kennedy Airport and land at Los Angeles International Airport, in sunny California. As I sign papers for a car, a special bulletin broadcasts on the television set mounted in the corner of the rental office. “Southland bridges are under a high security alert,” says newscaster solemnly. The terrorists have followed us from New York. I make a point not to turn on the radio as we crawl through congested freeways. Helena is constantly worrying about how to protect Simon as the world moves into a new Dark Age of potential biological and nuclear terrorism. The woman once renowned for her ability to hate now channels that negative energy into anxiety. She goes so far as to wish Simon was never born, nonexistence preferable to growing up in a world torn asunder, with resources dwindling, starvation and death the new world order. I am simply happy to be in a T-shirt in November, looking up at palm trees, a vast new city to discover. Helena thinks our move is not big enough. She wants out of the country. I want to feast at the fabled fast food outlets of Southern California: In-n-Out and Fat Burger. Helena sees only Mad Cow lurking in the fully dressed meals, glistening with tempting condiments. I anticipate the smells of the Pacific Ocean, the sights of charming Craftsmen homes nestled in rolling hills and vistas framed by the snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains. Helena wants to renounce her citizenship and seek sanctuary in some neutral Scandinavian nation.
Our first weekend we temporarily settle off a bland boulevard in Glendale at an even blander extended-stay motel across the street from the blandest Mexican restaurant that serves as our kitchen. Then we move into the home Tony Millionaire found us in the hills of Silver Lake. While we were still packing boxes in Brooklyn, he fronted the deposit, renting us a duplex sight unseen. Our new home is rustic and we camp out in the empty house like pioneers, on an inflatable mattress, waiting for the movers and our belongings.
A variety of exotic trees, rooted in a dusty mound of dirt with fragrant plants and flowers of yellow and red growing in dense patches surround our new home. The trees shade the old stucco house from the powerful midday sun. It is ten-degrees cooler inside than down the few concrete steps to the sunbaked street. From our front door we see the cluster of glass towers of downtown, partially obscured by low-hanging branches. A large covered patio in back opens to a view of palm trees planted in rows marching over hills. On a clear day I can see the Hollywood sign and, if I lean dangerously over the railing of our patio, the dome of the Griffith Observatory peeking over the Los Feliz horizon. We watch the sun set in the west, turning brilliant shades of purple and gold as it slips past another day.
Helena says our rent is too high. Silver Lake is the Smith Street of Los Angeles, trendy and overpriced for the privilege of living there. Helena frets; we should find a more affordable residence. Yes, we are paying a bit more for a smaller space than we had in Brooklyn, but we traded a concrete schoolyard for a grassy backyard where Simon plays in a quiet neighborhood that seldom is disturbed by the exhaust of cars. It is as close to the suburban dream house that two unemployed parents can hope for. Los Angeles is a transitional city, between urban and suburban. We can live here for a couple of years and then dive into deep suburbia without risking a case of the residential bends.
Homes in California have an unsubstantial feel to them compared to houses back east. They don’t need to stand up against extremes in weather. They look more like summer shares or beach retreats that one great huff and puff from the big, bad wolf will send crashing down. Helena sees danger everywhere. Her concerns were not unwarranted. She locks herself out of the house and easily unlatches the bedroom window to gain entrance where we sleep. The electricity is wired from the Age of Edison and looks more like a museum exhibition than a power source. There is only one live outlet for all the power in our home and from it comes a hissing snake of extension cords that run throughout the house delivering energy. As a child, one of Helena’s brothers stuck his finger in an outlet and she is terrified Simon is doomed to repeat this shocking life lesson. She buys me Black & Decker: The Complete Guide to Home Wiring, assuming that I am the man of the house. The primary outlet rests in the back of the bottom shelf of a built-in ornamental fireplace and wall unit in the living room. It poses a hazardous temptation for Simon. I cover the snake pit of exposed wiring with the how-to book.
Daddy Longlegs cling to webs like sentinels in high corners of the house waiting for an unlucky fly to catch in its traps. Spiders make a welcome houseguest next to the cockroaches that used to scurry beneath baseboards when we switched on the lights in our Brooklyn apartment.
Our landlord tells me that Raymond Chandler lived here when he was writing for Hollywood. I buy a thick hardback volume of his collected stories as an introduction to Los Angeles. Times have changed since Philip Marlowe cruised these wide boulevards, but reading Chandler’s poetic descriptions of the city’s buildings, plant life and people provides a personal entry into my adopted hometown that driving past slabs of concrete never can. Helena, only partially in jest, feels Raymond Chandler haunts our house. Even on the hottest days there is a bone-chilling coolness inside, so cold that our fingers cramp as we type. We defrost them over the gas heat of the kitchen range. The landlord hopes the spirit of this early tenant inspires me as a writer. Helena sees Raymond Chandler as an evil specter trying to freeze us out.
Walking after his first birthday, at last sturdy on his feet, Simon finds himself removed from a city renowned for its street life and placed where no body walks. He spends all day strapped to a car seat speeding by drive-ins with spinning signs pulsing through bleak strip malls. But Simon loves Los Angeles. He plays outside everyday: in our yard, at the recreation center down the hill or in the playgrounds of Griffith Park. We join the zoo and regularly visit the beach where Simon collects sand, hidden pockets of his clothing and diaper, which is dumped in our bed. Helena worries about smog giving Simon asthma, slathers him with sun block to prevent skin cancer and tries to prepare for the natural or manmade disaster she is certain will come.
Helena is not happy living in paradise, but Tony Millionaire is happy we are in Los Angeles. He takes us under his paternal wing. He found us a place to live. He helps us research what car to buy. He revels in revealing the beautiful Los Angeles concealed behind the urban sprawl. I spend much of my first weeks riding in the death seat of Tony’s car. He is built too tall and lanky to fit comfortably in the streamlined confines of today’s gas-efficient automobiles. His antiquated aesthetic is more suited to a horse-drawn carriage than the used, burgundy-colored Honda Accord that is his chariot. The very thought of him behind the wheel causes synapses to misfire. Tony doesn’t drive cars. He battles these iron beasts, such as the cab that he flagged on his birthday party like a matador, when last seen in Brooklyn. Tony and the combustible engine locked horns and appeared to be forever at odds. But everybody drives in Los Angeles, even the lowliest lowlife has a car, leaving the truly disturbed to roam the streets and ride public transportation.
Just as an outsider’s perceptions of New York ends at the border of Manhattan, the West Side defines Los Angeles. The Pacific Ocean hugs the dramatic coastline. The Beach City of Santa Monica with its famous pier and promenade, Venice with its canals and trashy street life and the remote and exclusive Malibu community are west. Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive, the Sunset Strip, all the tourist attractions are west. Hollywood is the great divide, with Griffith Park, Koreatown, Downtown and the fabled hood, east beyond it. Silver Lake is east of Hollywood.
Tony never drives west. His California begins east of the borderline of Los Angeles. He shows me public stairs up and down the hills of Silver Lake where Laurel and Hardy lugged an upright piano in an Oscar-winning comic short for the historic Max Sennett studio. That studio’s building still stands, a small triangular white structure in Silver Lake.
First-time visitors to New York City find it strangely familiar because movies and television programs use it as a location. Being born in New York City I took this for granted, but experience the same odd cognizance in Los Angeles. The Spanish-style homes with their unusual mix of exotic vegetation are the residences of the sitcom families I grew up with. The fountain spraying like a geyser from the center of the Echo Park Lake is the setting of police procedurals. The city is already a part of my imagination.
Then Tony exposes a section of Southern California unseen even by my mind’s eye, yet reflecting an elemental ideal of family, hearth and security. It is Pasadena, home to Cal Tech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, scientific excellence outside my grasp that recalls my childhood fascination with our solar system and the space program. It is South Pasadena with its quaint Americana main street, the same main street I hated in Harrison as dull and lifeless. It is the Huntington Library with its botanical gardens and erudite library, acres of cactus gardens, Japanese gardens with bonsai trees and ponds thick with large, colorful koi. The nature I ran from I now run to. The deep-green fields of grass make lush beds to rest on and view the raising mountains on the horizon, piercing the mist. The historic section of Pasadena called Bungalow Heaven, with its cute Craftsmen houses rich in detail and small enough to tempt even an unemployed writer into thinking he might invest in a home for his family.
We drive to the summit of the Griffith Park foothills, where the Griffith Observatory sits, with Los Angeles spread out like an open chest of jewels sparkling in the twilight, the spires of downtown in the east and those of Century City in the west, behind us the San Gabriel Mountains. The sun setting as a cool wind sweeps over the observation deck.
"The eyes of God looking down over the city,” Tony says. "In New York there’s the bright peak of the Chrysler Building. It’s the presence of God, the eyes of God. In Los Angeles, God is right here.” He gestures to the city. "Look up to the hills,” he says. "Seeing the Griffith Observatory is to know that God is present.”
God doesn’t play a major role in the spiritual life of the Schmew. We don’t keep kosher or worship the Sabbath. We don’t pray. Our first Hanukkah in this strange new Promised Land came upon us without warning. It was already nightfall when we finally found the menorah. But there are no candles.
I drive to Vons, the twenty-four hour supermarket on Sunset. With the whoosh of its automatic doors I am inside and descended upon by aggressively friendly stock boys. "Welcome to Vons. May I help you?” one asks. Los Angeles is façade, all smiles and affability. Scratch the surface, though, and it’s not a pretty sight. "Do you have Hanukkah candles?” I ask. His expression remains cheery, but he doesn’t answer. "Hanukkah candles,” I say again, "for the menorah.” After another long silence, "Candles are in aisle fourteen. Would you like me to take you there?” I caused this polite fellow enough grief and tell him I can find them myself.
There are indeed candles displayed in aisle fourteen, all with garish portraits of suffering saints. They are likely used in some religious ceremony, but nothing requiring a yarmulke. There are no Hanukkah candles. There are no candles I can even carve and jam into the menorah. It is long past sundown. Thankfully, Schmuish law has a loose sense of time.
I am about to leave when I spot a paunchy middle-aged man behind the counter at the pharmacy. He is wearing a yarmulke pinned to his thinning gray hair. Approaching the pharmacist I lean forward and whisper conspiratorially, "I’m looking for Hanukkah candles,” winking, “know where I might be able to find some?”
He wears the same pasted-on smile as the stock boy and directs me to aisle fourteen. “There are no Hanukkah candles there,” I say. The pharmacist leans closer, "You’re not going to find Hanukkah candles here.” His voice is quiet and his eyes dart back and forth looking up and down the aisles. "Have you tried Ralphs?” he asks. Ralphs is another large supermarket chain with a name that while not Jewish did sound more ethnic and promising. I shake my head. "There’s a Ralphs on Fairfax,” he notes, Fairfax being the Jewish district of Los Angeles. "Go there.” I thank him for the tip and find myself also looking suspiciously up and down the aisle before making a hasty exit.
Later we light the Hanukkah candles with Simon, reading the prayers phonetically off a computer printout. I guide the Shammash candle in Simon’s hand and light the menorah. He loves it, awed by the flickering light. I love that he loves it, rejoicing in our shared Jewish, or Schmuish, tradition. Simon blows out the candles. He wants to perform the ceremony again.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
35. NAVY BLUES
On the second floor of my family’s eighteen-century farmhouse, on the sprawling lush acreages of Hidden Spring Farms, I blotted out the idyllic world outside my window with posters and pinups and, most importantly of all, a tiny black-and-white television set that by some good fortune had found itself in my bedroom. Opposite my bunk bed and across the expanse of the wet-nursed rug, kneaded by my neurotic cat, was a long white tabletop that stretched wall-to-wall. The ceiling dipped over my desk and rested on top of two small windows with a view of the front yard. Sometimes my cat, trapped on the roof, would cry at the window for me to let her in. But mostly my attention was on the portable television that was set up on the right side of my lengthy desk, its illuminated screen more enticing than the giant tadpoles and bullfrogs in the countless streams, the wild deer and pheasants that wandered out of the deep mysterious woods just past the manicured lawns around our old house.
One afternoon, watching Mister Roberts, I saw myself. I related not to the character played by Henry Fonda, the noble Mr. Roberts — eager to get off the supply ship, on which he was stationed, to fight in the Good War — but Jack Lemmon’s evasive Ensign Pulver. I, too, wanted to blend into the woodwork, go overlooked and dodge my responsibilities.
Lieutenant Roberts is a popular officer, beloved by his crew. He stands with them against the harsh will of the ship’s captain, a strict, unsympathetic disciplinarian, played by James Cagney. The only thing the captain loves is his palm tree. After another senseless command, like making the crew keep their shirts on as they labored under a brutal sun, Lieutenant Roberts tosses the captain’s palm tree overboard. Mr. Roberts gets his wish and is transferred to a battleship in the war zone. The captain gets another palm tree and securely fastens it to the deck with a heavy chain. The crew remain under the captain’s cruel command, the recently promoted Ensign Pulver now their weak-willed advocate, when a letter arrives from Mr. Roberts. It’s read on deck. The crew thrilled by his tales from the front lines. There’s another letter in the mailbag, an official correspondence. Mr. Roberts has been killed in action. A kamikaze pilot attacked his ship, striking while he was in the mess, drinking coffee. Ensign Pulver shatters the stillness, marching to the palm tree, violently tearing it free and tossing it into the drink. He then slams open the bulkhead door leading to the captain’s quarters and shouts, "Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver, and I just threw your stinkin’ palm tree overboard! Now what’s all this crud about no movie tonight?” The captain’s features go slack — the end.
Tears swelled up in my eyes and my hands choked the pillow. My knuckles flashed white. Releasing the pent-up rage, I pitch the pillow at the television screen, screaming, "Why! Why! Why?”
Mom heard the crying and came into my room. She knew the movie. My Mom is a commercial actress. She was the first Pam lady. "I know how to save time, money and calories,” was her perkily emoted pitch, holding the nonstick spray in one hand and three fingers up on the other. Her friendly face was framed by dark hair cut in a perfect Mary Tyler Moore flip that bobbed next to her long slender neck above square shoulders.
She has a very soothing voice, but also oddly unnerving because of a generic tone acquired after years of training as an actor. Whenever I hear a woman’s voiceover advertising something on the radio or television, and it’s not some character actor or Crazy Eddie-type pitchmen, for a split second it registers as my Mom. When she called out to me from behind my closed door I was confused: was this a disclaimer broadcasted after Mister Roberts to calm the nerves of confused boys struggling with strong emotions?
But it was my Mom come to comfort me. Only she mistakenly thought that the death of Lieutenant Roberts, who over the course of the film I was expected to respect and love, was the cause of my discontent. It was not. It was that poor palm tree. What did that plant ever do to anyone? The captain loved that palm tree and Ensign Pulver tossed it overboard like chum. Was the audience supposed to hate the captain so intensely that we’d accept this heartless act as heroic?
This was wrong. It threatened the very fabric of society. I respected authority and expected everyone else to do likewise. How else to maintain the fragile equilibrium of our civilization? Palm trees tossed off the decks of ships, orders not followed, everything would go haywire. It made me dizzy and uncertain.
I was brought up believing good triumphs over evil. Comic books taught me that although Spider-Man may have his hang-ups, he always defeats the Green Goblin. Sure, bad deeds go unpunished. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. In real life, as opposed to fantasies printed in four colors on newsprint, there is no righteous plan that will circumvent the pratfalls of life. But following the rules, listening to authority, obeying the captain and respecting the palm tree is a good start. There is a place where the serpent will lie with the sexiest women in the world, as Nastassja Kinski so vividly exposed on the poster above my bunk bed. I needed black and white, good versus bad, superhero against supervillian, the yin and yang of the immature mind. All I wanted was a rulebook to guide me with proper etiquette. But break, mock and discard the rules was the mantra of the day. Who cares what fork you use to eat salad? I care! Manners are the roadmap for the shy and awkward. Polite society is not restrictive — it is maneuverable. Everything in its place, each move practiced like societal choreographed dance. Then Mister Roberts stepped on my toes.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
24. THE END IS NIGH
The headline in the New York Post calls modo a "Fifty Day Wonder” when it shutters operations after publishing less than two months in New York City. The San Francisco office never went live, and the Los Angeles bureau learned the company folded the day before its launch party. That put a damper on the festivities. I return to trade journalism, working for Adweek Magazines’ Technology Marketing, back on the outside reporting on the modos of the new economy, of which there are many. There are so many failing technology companies that meager ad pages at the magazine gets me laid off for the second time before Simon turns one. Helena quit her job to stay at home with Simon. Now we are both stay-at-home moms.
There are no ties holding us to New York, outside of my entire family and all our friends. Helena cares little for the life here, and over the years my love affair with the city has turned to indifference. New York City is too expensive, too dirty, too crowded and too loud. It offers arts and culture, but not in our apartment, which we never leave. The poor have no choice but stay, while the rich can live in the luxury of a gilded cage, but its still a cage. We are neither below the poverty line nor affluent. We are parents. We don’t even have jobs or an identity outside of tending to Simon. Mayor Guliani is focusing his administration on “quality of life” issues, which some believe an affront to their right as proud New Yorkers to have no quality in life. It’s an absurd city. When I was younger I loved that lawlessness, the scary possibilities around every corner, but now as a family man I want a house, a yard, a porch to look at the trees and relish the peace and quiet, while shooing the neighborhood kids off my property. I recall an old punk record by the Descendents, "Suburban Home”; they sang, “I want a house just like mom and dad,” the sarcasm now lost on me.
Tony Millionaire moved out to Los Angeles, married and started a family. He regales us with tales of a mythical land called Pasadena where people live in cute bungalows and children play in the streets that look like a Norman Rockwell painting with palm trees.
I’d been to California a handful of times, even before my blind love for New York faded. I was attracted to life there. As a child I was lucky and traveled to Rome and London and visited the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., tropical islands in the Caribbean. I rafted in North Carolina and saw Space Mountain when it opened at Disney World. However spectacular the sights, exotic the locale, when I returned home and first saw the skyline of Manhattan I was happy, home, where I belonged. The happiest place on Earth. But when I first flew back from California and saw the sun reflected on the glass towers, I shielded my eyes.
Examine a map of the country. The Eastern states are smashed together with ragged boarders, cramped. Go West and they open up as if letting out a sigh of relief. Given elbowroom state, lines smooth into orderly divisions. The blight of manmade urban sprawl is everywhere, but out West it’s dwarfed by panoramic views, from snow-tipped mountain ranges and rocky desert expanses to coastlines hugging the sparklingly blue vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Nature is untamed in the West. In the East, nature is leased to serve man. New York City is a construction of iron girders and tarred valleys, dislocated from nature, the rare whiff of salty sea air like déjà vu, an echo from a dead time. I want a new beginning, a chance for my family to live and flourish. No more regrets. Go West, middle-aged man, before it’s too late.
"Everything is harder in New York,” Millionaire tells me on a visit East. "Even turning the key in your door lock is harder.”
He is preaching to the choir. We are converts. New York City is a land of old gods and our family prays at the altar of the newest god of them all, our lord the Schmuish god. Helena and I make plans to move to Los Angeles. She prefers Seattle and I San Francisco, but Millionaire says there is plenty of work for a talented wordsmith in Hollywood and promised me riches writing sitcoms within the year. We pack up and say goodbye to the cockroaches, the schoolyard kids and their flying combination locks that regularly shatter our kitchen window. Goodbye to the hoards of trendy youngsters that flood Smith Street boutiques, bistros and bars, the drunken handyman who bellows his lonely last call in the predawn streets and my landlords who eagerly accept a Hefty bag donation of porno. Goodbye to the F train that rattles the foundation of our two-story walkup as it runs beneath the sidewalk, the Gawanus Projects, with its greasy spoon dives, crack vials and angry loiterers, just around the corner and a million miles away from the gentrification of Cobble Hill. We say goodbye to the silver of Manhattan skyline visible from our back window, the caps of the two tallest skyscrapers in the city, the Twin Towers, the World Trade Center.
On the morning of September Eleventh I am doing what I do every morning, obsessively checking my email and logging onto The New York Times Web site to see how low the stock market has fallen. Misery loves company, and it was about to get crowded.
The Web page was taking forever to load. Simon is crawling around the house, an obstacle course of large and small boxes stacked high like a cardboard shantytown. Helena is at her computer besides mine, doing freelance work. I watch the spinning icon on my browser and curse the undelivered promise of broadband. The front page of the Times finally loads but skeletally on my monitor. Empty picture boxes forebodingly frame ominous Xs. A banner headline says a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. "It’s some kind of a hoax,” Helena says, suspicious of any news gathered online. I get up from my chair and walk over to the kitchen window, looking out through its jagged holes held together by Plexiglas bandages and electrical tape. Over the Brooklyn rooftops I see the Twin Towers. From each comes a billowing pillar of pitch-black fumes carried southeast by the wind. It is only a few days after Simon’s first birthday,and I see instead two extinguished candles smoking as on a cake after a wish, the party over.
For the rest of the morning Helena and I stand at our kitchen window. Not one, but two planes have hit the towers. I say, “What are the odds of that?” never thinking that this tragic act is premeditated. Slowly news reports tell of similar crashes, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and another plane that went down in rural Pennsylvania. There are reports of unaccounted aircraft, potential missiles in what is now being called an organized terrorist attack. Airports across the nation are shut down. As I watch, one of the Towers suddenly disappears. Where it once stood now only a shadow of smoldering darkness, a phantom. Helena pulls me from the window. She wants me to buy provisions, just in case. In case of what neither of us know.
Outside it smells like a foul barbecue. Paper embers blown from the collapsed office buildings float over the river and litter South Brooklyn like bleak confetti. People congregate on every corner telling others where they were when it happened; speak of those they know that work at the World Trade Center. They say anything just to talk and be heard and in turn pay witness to another’s account — the experience a reality only in the retelling.
The week after the attack New York City is united as only it can be when under siege. All I recall of the Nineteen Sixty-Seven blackout was our dining room illuminated by the flickering light of candles, but the stories of New Yorkers taking to the dark streets to direct traffic became legendary. Other cities loot and riot, New Yorkers may have a reputation for being gruff and unfriendly, and they are, but they have to be. Manhattan is like a penal colony where prisoners live stacked one on top of the other without personal space and privacy. Yet when the chips are down New Yorkers pick them up, polish them off and put them back together again. Fire engines driving down the street are greeted with spontaneous applauds. For the first time in years I feel pride in my city, happy to be in New York and guilty about abandoning it at this crucial time in its history.
I never much cared for the World Trade Center, nobody did. It was just an expansion of the generic glass boxes of midtown built to epic proportions, two antennas at the head of the slug-like body of Manhattan as it crawled slowly with the weight of artless architecture into the future. But for a brief moment the World Trade Center was the tallest building in the world, and I loved that. When I first traveled to the top of one of the Towers I could feel the floor faintly swaying beneath my feet, bending with the strong currents at that high altitude to keep it from snapping in half. I sketched the World Trade Center in art school. Helena and I wandered the underground shopping mall when we worked together at the nearby Chemical Market Reporter. We bought a menorah at a card shop there to celebrate Simon’s first Hanukkah. Whatever I thought of them aesthetically, the World Trade Center had become an iconic part of the city and woven into the material of my memory. Now suddenly not there it is as if Manhattan’s skyline has been castrated. To leave New York City at this time is like abandoning a friend recovering in the hospital after both their legs have been blown off.
Helena is not so sentimental. Terrorist cells boarding passenger planes and flying them like missiles into civilian targets, calling themselves religious martyrs, extinguishes the already weakening flame of her belief in God. She becomes a hardcore atheist and teaches Simon to chant, "No God.”