Thursday, December 17, 2015

Christmas Eve at Rosen's Deli

It's Christmas Eve and Paddy Kelly is on his way home from work at the Post Office. He stops at Rosen's Deli and orders a brisket of beef sandwich on pumpernickel rye with a smear of horseradish and a "new" kosher pickle on the side. 

Ever since he came from Ireland to Chicago years ago, Paddy has preferred the "new" kosher pickle to the standard kosher pickle because it's crunchier, he says. It's more like a cucumber, he told his wife, because it isn't cured as long as the standard kosher pickle. He loves the sound as he bites into one, a sound he magnifies whenever he brings his wife to Rosen's. Maggie Kelly likes the new pickle but doesn't like the sound of Paddy chomping on it in public.

"I'll take a potato latke, too, Sol," Paddy says to Mr. Rosen, the proprietor of the deli and eldest son of a rabbi killed at the Treblinka Concentration Camp by the Nazis during World War II. Sol was the only survivor in his family. His parents and four siblings were gassed at Treblinka. At 76 Sol has now almost come to grips with the murders except on Jewish holidays when everything about the Treblinka camp dashes back into his mind. If it weren't for the American soldiers getting there on time, he would have gone to the gas chamber as well.

"You want coffee now Paddy?" Sol says, stationed in his white apron at the big silver urn, cup in hand. The apron is a patchwork of all the condiments Sol has dispensed during his long day. Mustard stains are particularly hard to get out, according to Mrs. Rosen, a tiny woman, who reminds Sol of that whenever she's behind the counter helping out. 

"Coffee later, Sol, with a piece of cheesecake. No dinner tonight. Maggie's not feeling well. I'll eat here and take noodle soup to go. I hope she'll feel better in the morning. She'd never forgive herself if she's too sick to go to Mass on Christmas Day."

It's always quiet on Christmas Eve at Rosen's Deli but this time it's quieter than usual. Two regulars, Ruben Cohen and Ruben Goldberg, are the only other customers They are sitting on their usual thrones at the counter, with an empty throne between them, facing each other in almost matching fedoras and arguing as always about the definition of certain Yiddish words.

Cohen and Goldberg have been arguing about the fine points--and not so fine points--of the Yiddish language for years with no sign of detente. Right now, the argument is over whether "kunilemel" and "shmendreck" are Yiddish synonyms--or not. Ruben Cohen says it's worse to be called a shmendreck than a kunilemel and Ruben Goldberg maintains that is not accurate. 

"They're both the same, Cohen!" Goldberg proclaims, prior to a slurp of coffee.

"Are you telling me you'd just as soon be called a shmendreck as a kunilemel," Cohen yells at Goldberg. 

If a selection had to be made, Goldberg would probably be judged the scholar of the two in that he usually completes the crossword puzzle in the Chicago Sun-Times in half an hour. Cohen, on the other hand, is currently a cab driver with a degree in accounting. He's between jobs, which is usually the case for Ruben Cohen, and he hasn't got time for crossword puzzles. But he'll do your taxes accurately for a lot less than H&R Block.

"Time is money," Cohen says to Goldberg as he heads for the door. "I got no time for crossword puzzles on Christmas Eve. I'll be getting quite a few fares for Midnight Mass. It's tough for the old-timers to walk a few blocks. Ask Kelly over there. He'll tell you that's the truth.

Paddy Kelly, in the meantime, is lost in thought as he finishes his cheesecake and coffee and walks up to pay his tab at the front of the store. Once again Sol is there wrestling with his ancient register. Some days it works and some days it doesn't. Sol shakes it at least three times before putting in a call to the repairman. On Christmas Eve, the charge would be higher and it's high enough, Sol says, on regular days.

"How's Mrs. Rosen, Sol?," Paddy asks. "Haven't seen her in weeks."

"Cancer, Paddy," Sol says. "They operate next week. Things don't look good. The docs say everything depends on what they find. Up until now she's had good health for a woman her age."

Paddy has no idea what to say. He knows Minerva Rosen better than Sol. Years ago it was Minerva Rosen who handed him his first new pickle. And then she gave him his first knish. Two days after that, she brought over his first steaming bowl of sweet and sour cabbage soup. 

Paddy had eaten a lot of cabbage in Ireland but nothing as delicious as Mrs. Rosen's sweet and sour cabbage soup. He always comes in for a bowl on St. Patrick's Day before heading to the party at the Knights of Columbus Hall. 

The Rosens cater that event every year. For weeks afterward arguments continue among the guests, most of them immigrants from Ireland, as to which corned beef is better--Rosen's kosher corned beef or the version they ate on holidays back in Ireland, provided their families could afford it. Otherwise they ate boiled cabbage and potatoes with a piece of pork tossed in for flavoring.

Paddy has always preferred Rosen's corned beef but he would never risk his life by saying so in front of the other Knights.  

"Sol, at church tomorrow, Maggie and I will pray hard for Mrs. Rosen. I hope to God the surgery works. Sometimes praying is all that anyone can do."

"I know," Sol says as the register finally springs open. "You have a good Christmas, Paddy, and we'll see what the doctors say next week. The best to you and Maggie."  

Donal Mahoney
New Year's Resolutions

Jim Daley and Joe McCarthy had something in common. They died at 80 going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Walt O'Brien, their protege, found this out when he called the homes of both men on New Year's Day, an annual custom for Walt, something he started doing years ago just to find out how his old mentors were doing. 

Jim's widow spoke to Walt on the phone and told him Jim had died from a stroke on Halloween. They had found his body in the morning, half in the bathroom and half in the hallway, cold as a mackerel fresh out of the sea. Jim's widow said she was a sound sleeper. Walt thought she should have heard his body fall since Jim was a big man, all belly and buttocks, as Jim himself would put it. 

Joe's widow said her Joe had tripped on the bathroom rug on All Soul's Daybanged his head on the commode and died in intensive care a week later, never emerging from his coma. She was happy the priest got there in time to administer the last rites before Joe stopped breathing. His last breath, she said, was a gurgle.
Jim and Joe had been more like uncles to Walt than mentors. They came into his life when Walt was in grammar school. It was just after his dad had been killed in Korea and Walt needed all the support he could get. 

Over the next 50 years Walt had stayed in touch with both men, calling them on New Year's Day from different cities. Their advice over the years helped Walt survive three job lossesa foreclosure, two car wrecks and four divorces. Sometimes their advice dealt with the big issues of life. But sometimes they commented on smaller phenomena as well. 

Last year, for example, Jim had warned Walt that growing old meant not being able to put your underwear on standing up. 

"I have to sit on the bed now," Jim had said, sounding almost depressed for a man known for his jocularity. 

Right after Jim told him about the underwear problem, Walt called Joe and asked if Jim was right. Joe too confirmed he now had to sit on the bed to get his underwear on. He told Walt every man has to sit down at some point in life, provided he lives long enough.

"Age has its requirements," Joe said. "There's a happy medium, I suppose. If I had died a few years ago, I wouldn't be having this problem right now."

At 60, Walt could still put his underwear on standing up but it was getting more difficult. He had to hop on one leg, pogo-stick style, to get the job done. But sitting down was not an option. Walt was a proud man who had overcome bigger problems in life and he'd keep hopping for as long as he could. 

One time, however, he almost fell but landed in a chair. His fourth wife Belinda still laughs about it even though they're no longer married. She even called two of his ex-wives and told them about it. They couldn't stop laughing.

Walt knows that one day he will have to sit down to put his underwear on unless he dies before that. He figures he has at least a few good years left. But after hearing that Jim and Joe had died trying to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night, Walt decided to take certain steps to avoid a similar mishap in his own life. 

First, he installed night lights along the baseboards going from the bedroom to the bathroom. At midnight the hallway now shines like a small expressway with no traffic at all.
Then Walt made some New Year's resolutions, a step he had never taken before. As a result he now eats salads and fruit plates instead of double cheeseburgers and lots of ice cream. What's more he reads the Bible now and then in the morning. He's even quit drinking beer late into the night.  
The new Walt now sits back in his leather recliner, sips wine coolers out of old jelly jars and listens, over and over, to his favorite recording of an old Irish reel called "Toss the Feathers." It’s played beautifully, he says, by the McNulty Family, most of whose members, he figures, are by now dead.
When he was a boy, Jim and Joe had introduced Walt to traditional Irish music and even taught him a few steps of the reel, jig and hornpipe.
Once in awhile, when he's had enough wine, Walt tries to do a few of those steps and he succeeds to his own satisfaction.
And, of course, he still puts his underwear on standing up, one hop at a time. 
Donal Mahoney

Donal Mahoney

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

An Opinion on Events at the University of Missouri

I was born, reared, educated and worked as an editor in Chicago for many years. I now live in St. Louis, Missouri, where work brought me long ago. In retirement, I stay busy writing a little of this and a little of that. 
But I am distracted now but not surprised by the racial discord at the University of Missouri, a year or so after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. I find racism in St. Louis much different than I remember its counterpart in Chicago. But I am white and still a Chicagoan, albeit an expatriate, and perhaps that skews my thoughts. I like the people of Missouri but I’m not one of them. I lived too long in Chicago that almost as many years in Missouri cannot counteract.
I find that unlike in the Chicago I recall, where racism was often loud and abrasive, racism in St. Louis has until recently seemed largely silent.
But as an outsider I find racism in St. Louis is part of many white folks’ emotional DNA while perhaps it is not in Chicago, at least to the same degree. I can’t speak, of course, for blacks in either state except to note the obvious. Until recently blacks in Chicago addressed issues more forcefully than in St. Louis. And then came the killing of Michael Brown.
Missouri was and is still considered by some to be a Southern state. Not so Illinois. Nevertheless, I have found that many whites in Chicago and in St. Louis respond to blacks negatively but for different reasons.
In Chicago, blacks moving into a white neighborhood meant property values would drop, a happening anathema to white property owners and to be avoided if at all possible. Blacks were also considered to be bearers of crime, doubtless due in part to the poverty they lived with then and many still live with now. To what degree the lack of opportunity caused by racism in whites is a contributing factor is difficult to calculate but impossible to deny.
In Chicago, I found that not many whites, myself included, knew any blacks well. As a teen I almost got to know one black man while I was working at a summer job in a soft drink factory. He was an older man who worked the day his son was executed by the state later in the night. He never said a word during his shift. A white supervisor told me about the impending execution the way a good reporter might, sans any emotion. 
The black worker looked no different that day doing his repetitive job than he did any other day, putting empty soda bottles into holes in a conveyor belt so they could be washed and sterilized. Except for two breaks and lunch, he could not stop inserting the bottles. If he stopped, the conveyor belt would stop. He used both hands to stuff the bottles in the holes as the machine clanged on, the conveyor belt rising and disappearing into the steam of the soapy boiling water. It was like watching a dwarf stand in front of Niagara Falls running in reverse.
In my time in Missouri, I have lived in St. Louis and in a rural part of the state. I have found whites and blacks may know each other better in St. Louis than in Chicago even if they do not like each other any better.
In the past, rural whites and blacks in Missouri lived in fairly close proximity as blacks often worked for whites on their farms. Perhaps from their rural ancestors, urban blacks and whites in St. Louis bring with them attitudes and opinions about each other that have not been driven off despite the different kind of life many of them now lead in an urban area.
After three decades in Missouri, following four in Chicago, I am still surprised that blacks have not rioted in St. Louis long before now, not that whites in St. Louis have given them greater cause to do so than whites may have done in the Chicago I knew.
But the lethal silence of racism in Missouri that I sense must have aggravated and now continues to aggravate problems over three or four generations. As a social illness, I find this silent racism not unlike AIDS in that until it begins to show, one doesn’t know if someone else, white or black, is a carrier.
When I first emigrated from Chicago, I told my wife, a University of Missouri Journalism School grad with four books in print, that I thought St. Louis was another Watts in gestation, that some day the lid would blow, and the destruction, seen and unseen, would be incalculable. It hasn’t blown yet but there are days I think I hear the water boiling. 
The day Michael Brown died was one of those days. The day the president of the University of Missouri resigned in the face of black protests was another. I have to wonder if there isn’t among blacks protesting at the University of Missouri some subliminal connection to what happened in Ferguson. I also have to wonder if the roar of the black students now isnt louder as a result of what happened in Ferguson. Is it all part of the new continuum called Black Lives Matter?
Despite local, national and international coverage that might lead some to a different opinion, Michael Brown was no angel nor was Darren Wilson, the white cop who shot him. One was a young black man and the other a young white cop raised in the simmering silent racism that I, as an outsider, believe is pandemic in St. Louis and parts of rural Missouri. 
I realize that many natives of the state will resent and dissent from this opinion. I disagree with them but understand they have a different emotional DNA than I do. I’m not saying mine is better. It’s just different. Growing up in Chicago I learned to yell in the face of any kind of oppression, real or imagined. Black folks there did so as well. Not so in St. Louis, until recently. 
I don’t believe racism over time will evaporate in Chicago, St. Louis or other parts of the United States. The Pulitzer-prize-winning black poet Gwendolyn Brooks, back in Chicago in the Fifties, wrote something to the effect that racism in America will disappear when we are all "tea-colored."
From my experience over many years in both cities, I see no reason at the moment to disagree with Gwendolyn Brooks. But as do others on both sides, I have hope. Hope is the advent of progress. We need more hope fueling our actions and less gnashing of teeth. 
Donal Mahoney