Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Kissing Tina



It was an old black and white movie whose title, plot and stars fall far from my memory. What I recall was the kiss, and not a little quick peck, as my parents would occasionally engage in. This kiss was different; they were rhythmically drinking the passion from each other’s lips. It was as if the man and woman were inhaling each another. I wondered how they could breath. Their arms and hands caressed in concert as their lips danced across their mouths and then he began kissing her neck and she started to kiss his neck. “Oh this is so great” I thought, you could kiss anywhere that’s kissable. They were smooching so intensely I thought they would roll right out of the TV and on to the living room floor. It was fantastic, stimulating but yet puzzling to my fifteen-year-old psyche. I sat mesmerized on the living room sofa transported by the kissing couple on the black and white DuMont TV wondering— where do the noses go? Is there some kind of special romantic signal between the two? Does one head go left and the other to the right? At what angle should the head be to kiss correctly? I noticed they closed their eyes a great deal. That would surely make for some unfortunate accidents? What if one person ended up with their lips on the nose and the other’s lips on the chin? And the teeth what goes on with the teeth? Could one chip a tooth if you kissed too hard? As baffling as it seemed I was comforted by the fact that that there was a new and exciting dimension to my reality, one which seem to consist of High School, baseball and the constant specter of Nuclear Armageddon. As our young president Mr. Kennedy stood in front of a divided German capitol in 1963 proclaiming Ich bin ein Berliner and as Sandy Koufax was leading the Los Angeles Dodgers to the World Series all I could dream of was my first kiss.
            One of the few things that I had going for me in Midwood High School was that I was in the chorus. The boy’s tenor section and the girl’s alto section were always close together. I found myself constantly looking or perhaps staring at Tina. Tina was tall, as tall as any boy in the chorus. There was a certain stigma attached to tall girls especially in a stratified High School like Midwood where the football team was God and nasty little cliques seem to insert their influence on every floor.
            Tina was the same height as me, which would be great if we ever kissed, as we would both be on the same level. She was either Italian or Greek which only added to her mystique.
Some of the guys in the chorus would make fun of her and refer to Tina as an “Amazon” or a “Watusi” but I saw her differently. With her long iridescent black hair, olive skin, and green eyes she was my Mediterranean Goddess a face that could launch a thousand ships with her beautiful voice. She was also one of the only girls in high school to wear colorful and dangly earrings, which always caught my eye as they danced down her long thin neck. 
A few months earlier I had made my first contact with her during our Christmas show. This performance was a major deal as three choruses were chosen from New York City Schools to give a holiday concert at The Brooklyn Academy of Music. We rehearsed for weeks and knew that all our families would be in attendance. An hour before the performance as everyone was nervously pacing back stage Tina walked up to me clamped her hand on my arm and said, “Oh I’m so flustered and nervous I’ve forgotten the entire third verse of Carol of the Bells. Quick, quick sing it to me so I can remember.” The combination of pre-show jitters and Tina holding my arm sent a flash of electricity through my body. It sure didn’t feel like this when my guy friends squeezed my arm. I felt little bits of fireworks as I replied,

Oh, how they pound, raising the sound
O'er hill and dale, telling their tale


            Tina lit up and without missing a beat sang the rest of the verse to me:


Gayly they ring while people sing
Songs of good cheer, Christmas is here


And then we both sang:

Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry Christmas
Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry Christmas

As we were finishing the second line Tina began to initiate a series of friendly punches into my arm as she said, “Thanks man you’re a pal, now we won’t embarrass ourselves in front of our parents.” The concert opened with Carol of the Bells and Tina’s section was placed on a wing thirty feet above the stage. As our choral leader slowly lifted her baton to start the show I looked up and saw Tina smiling at me from above and I was hooked. I was smitten, but I needed a plan, a subject to discuss with her that might stimulate her interest in me.
The previous week I noticed her walking around school with a copy of the recording West Side Story. “Yes,” I thought I’d use music to get to know her better and after all we did speak to each other back stage at The Christmas Show. The lunchroom was a mirror of the levels of social strata at Midwood High. 
The football team and their coteries gathered in the middle of the large cafeteria. Other sports teams had their own spots but never too close to the football team. The math and science nerds would sit together and talk science talk as they examined each other’s slide rules.
The kids in drama and the chorus would end up in the outlying areas and just sit wherever they felt like sitting. Tina would sit in the very last table and always near the wall.
Knowing it was the final week of school before summer vacation I summoned all my courage and boldly put my tray full of meatloaf, milk and some unknown desert down next to hers. She looked up and said “Hey it’s my friend from the chorus who remember lyrics a lot better then me. Have a seat or as they say where I live in Canarsie, cop a squat man.”
Looking at my tray Tina smiled and said, “That’s why I stay so skinny, the food is just to frightening to put on fork, know what I mean?” Feeling more confident I smiled and took a seat.
Tina leaned back on her seat and said, “So have seen or done anything exciting lately?” Gulping down a piece of Meatloaf I replied “My folks took me to see that new musical Fiorello.
 Without any hesitation she commenced to sing me the entire love song from the show titled “Till Tomorrow.”

Clouds drifting by echo a sigh

Parting is such sweet sorrow

I'm drifting too dreaming of you

Till tomorrow comes.



Other students stared and shook their heads but Tina just kept looking at me and singing and then silently bowed her head after the last line and vanished into her long dark mane. The world stopped and there was only Tina lifting her sparkling face laughing and saying, “Tell the truth how far off key was I?”  Before I could say anything she started poking me in the shoulder and excitedly said,  “I’ll tell you the song I really love from Broadway, you know that one, you know from My Fair Lady when Eliza Doolittle gets really mad at Dr. Higgins and she marches around singing, 

Just you wait Henry Higgins, Just you wait I mean I love that one cause you get to march around and talk and sing and it’s so funny. I was Eliza in Junior High and it was just so much fun. I like to sing and move around at the same time, know what I mean? Here I show you.” She then proceeded to sing and act out the song while she marched around the lunch table.


The bell began to ring for the next class but she kept going. Many of the students at the table were shaking their heads but not me.
All I could think of was “This is the girl for me, she’s so alive and fun.” As she returned to the table to get her books I put my hand on her shoulder and said, “Lets go out this weekend, would you like that?” Tina replied, “I’d love to, yeah lets do something fun. My mother and are I’m staying out at my aunts house on Neptune Avenue you know right near Cony Island, here’s her address come over Saturday afternoon.” As she was disappearing into the staircase I called out “What do you like to do?” She turned her head and shouted out, “I like to have fun.” Basking in the wake of Tina’s lunchroom performance I gleefully bounced up three flights of stairs to my Algebra class.
            That Friday evening I contemplated what Tina and I should do on our date. I gathered all my money together, which amounted to a little over $12.00. A Broadway musical was my first choice but it would be a lot more dough then what I had. I thought of a trip to Greenwich Village and go to one of the cafes and see folk music. There was this new singer Bob Dylan but he didn’t sing very well so that was out. Then there was always a movie, but I had the feeling Tina might want something more fun. I decided I’d just go to where she was staying and we’d figure it out.
            The next morning I got up, took a shower, brushed my teeth really good and made sure none of the clothes I was to wear and any tears or stains. As the city bus rumbled down Ocean Parkway I kept thinking of Tina singing me that love song in the cafeteria and how she danced around the table afterwards. Tina didn’t wear a mask like so many of the kids in Midwood; she was “earthy” and easy to be friends with.
             Tina was staying on the 8th floor of one of the many red brick apartment houses that seemed to grow out of Neptune Avenue. The buildings always smelled of food, a sort of wonderful confluence of Chicken Soup meets Veal Parmigiana meets Moussaka.
I took one look at the worn and tired elevator and elected to take to the stairs. I was still haunted by my childhood memories of that horrible red elevator that once kept me prisoner for almost an hour when I was seven. It was not only the the fear of getting stuck, it was the thought of the cable breaking and me trapped and falling in that tomb of death down a darkened shaft to my certain death. Before I could ring the bell the door opened with the chain still attached. Tina stuck her head out and best she could and said, “My mom’s here so get ready for twenty questions, don’t worry, it won’t last too long and then we can go have fun.”
            Her mother was quite tall as well and looked a lot like Tina. “So sit have some tea, you can tell me about yourself.” Tina leaned across the table and said, “What’s to tell? He’s just like me he’s fifteen, goes to High School and sings in the chorus.” Waving her hand at Tina to stop she then asked me, “So what are plans for today, are you going to take my Tina some place nice, like to a movie or dinner or both?” Placing her hands on the table Tina leaned in and said, “We don’t know yet mom we haven’t decided yet.” Frustrated Tina’s mom said, “Might be nice if you’d let him speak at least a little bit.” Placing her hand on her mother’s shoulder Tina replied, “Hey mom I need take him in the other room there’s something I want to show him. Don’t worry I’ll bring him back and you can continue to interrogate him.” Placing her hands in the air Tina’s mother replied “It would be nice if we could talk a little, Christ your just like your father.”
Tina dragged me into the living room and pointed out the window saying, “What’s that, tell me what that fabulous thing is?” The very sight of it made me feel ill. Turning slowly to Tina I replied, ”That’s the famous Parachute Jump. It’s 250 feet high and you sit on a little plank of wood and you go up real slow and then hopefully the chute opens and you float down.”
            “Yeah is that not just the most boss thing you have ever seen? I mean I’ve been on it over fifty times and every time it’s great. It’s the Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn; I mean it’s so beautiful. Tina turned to me and said, “How much dough do you have, come on pony up, how much you got?”
Still a bit shaken with the thought of my body floating up and down on that steel structure I replied “Oh I think I have around a little more then eleven dollars or so.”
She then gave me a friendly punch in the arm and continued punching me in the arm as she said, “Ok we have enough for a couple of dogs at Nathans and then we can go to Steeplechase and do all the rides and finish it all off with a ride (or maybe two) on The Parachute Jump.”
I quickly tried to make a deal “Well how about we go on the Cyclone (the gigantic wooden roller coaster) instead of The Parachute Jump?” Squinting her nose, Tina laughed and said, “I’m tired of The Cyclone I’ve been on it so many times it’s just not scary anymore, know what I mean? It’s got to scare you to be fun, right?” Not wanting to seem like a complete coward I agreed, figuring I could somehow wiggle my way out when the time came.
As we walked back into the kitchen Tina announced to her mother “Mom guess what, we decided the best thing to do is just walk a few blocks and have fun at the amusement park, and can you believe it he’s never been on The Parachute Jump.” Tilting her head and looking at me Tina’s mom said, “Maybe it’s just not his cup of tea.” Before she could speak another work Tina said, “Oh mom everybody loves that ride” and turning her head to me Tina went on —“Your going to love it, just you wait. I mean that Steeplechase Park has been there since 1887 and you know what most of it will close down next year so now’s our chance.” I silently stood between Tina and her mom wishing it were now 1964. As we were making our exit Tina’s mom called out “Be back by seven we have to go home to Carnarsie tonight your dads coming home.” Tina replied “yeah mom, yeah, yeah.”
Tina motioned me to the stairs and as she scooted down at a rapid pace she said, “I mean what could be better, a beautiful day, an amusement park by the beach and your first trip up to the sky on the old Parachute Jump? You know it was part of the 1939 New Yorks World’s Fair. They moved it all the way from Queens, the whole structure isn’t that amazing?” As I tried to keep with Tina’s descent down the stairs I was praying for rain, as I knew they wouldn’t operate “The Jump” in bad weather.
We quickly scampered down three blocks and soon found ourselves chomping down our dogs at Nathans. “Hey you know” Tina said between bites, “My family might be moving to Boston over the summer I think my dad’s company wants him there.
What a drag, I mean to leave Brooklyn and you know the people in Boston really talk funny, I mean you can’t understand a word they say.” Gulping my coke I replied “Yeah I’m leaving next week to work in a camp in Vermont.” Nodding her head Tina replied, “Seeing that this might be our one and only date we need to have as much fun as possible. Oh man, I can’t believe you’ve never been on The Parachute Jump, you are going to love it. I once rode it three times in a row and then I couldn’t walk straight for two hours, I mean is that crazy, is that fun?” Trying my best to hide my anxiety I replied, “Yeah that’s amazing and it’s so tall and high in the air.”
We started with The Steeplechase Ride, which were a set of six Iron Horses that were carried along the rails in a circle around Steeplechase Park. The horses went up inclines, down small iron hills, across streambeds and even a small set of hurdles. Tina pretended that she could make her horse go faster saying, “Look out for me I’m on old lightening and were headed to the finish line.” It was not the easiest ride in the world as one’s mount was suspended on an iron rail and the only thing holding you on was a worn out old belt and one’s hands which by the end of the ride would be wet with perspiration. I was glad when we came to the finish line.
We then went inside the park building where the first thing one would encounter would be a sort of evil clown who would snap two pieces of wood together right under one’s butt. Tina would just laugh at him and quickly zip her thin frame out of his reach. Next to the clown there was also a great whoosh of air, coming from the floor that blew up the women’s dresses. Seeing this Tina looked to me and said “That’s why I always wear slacks when I come in here.”
We then rode on the enormous slide, the house of mirrors, and soon came to giant revolving tunnel known as The Mixer. Tina stopped me before we began. “Ok the trick is you have to walk straight but on sort of an angle or else your body will be rolling around with a bunch of people who not only you don’t know but probably won’t want to know. Just wait till I start a do what I do and I’ll see you on the other side.” As we danced through we both fell down and laughed as we went spinning around. I put both my hands on Tina’s hands to lift her up and as I did I felt that surge of electricity again, little bits of fireworks.
As we exited The Mixer Tina turned to me and said, “This is getting boring, it’s time for some real fun, it’s time for The Parachute Jump.” We walked outside and gazed up at the 250 feet of metal and the six silk chutes descending and ascending. Tina turned to me and said, “People have gotten married on this ride that’s how much they love it. I mean could it be more beautiful and such a big blue sky today.”
 Noticing my apprehension she turned to me and with her large green eyes wide open said, “Don’t even think of punking out. I mean your not going to let me down, are you? I go on this ride all the time there’s nothing to worry about. You just need to let go and have fun, this ride is more fun then all the other rides put together. Look there are three guys on the ground guiding you down with cables. Your not free falling through the air it’s controlled all the way.”
I listened and then I responded, “Tina I need to tell you something about myself, I don’t like doing anything where my feet leave the ground. Sitting on a little plank of wood and going 250 in the air is, I mean it’s like just too much. Those Steeplechase Horses that’s my idea of adventure and fun. How about a ride on the Carousel that would take us up in the air?” Tina then put her hands on each of my shoulders and looked me straight in the eye. “First of all the wood is padded, so it’s not just some plank. Look you seem like a reasonable guy, how’s about I make you a deal, a really sweet deal?” Taking as deep a breath as possible I replied, “Ok Tina I ready to hear your deal.” She then started her little punching me in the arm motion and as she did she said, “Come on ride that Parachute Jump with me and after we get to the top we will “make out” all the way down, how’s that sound? You do want to kiss me, right?” I nodded a not very convincing nod. “Right so lets cut to the chase and get on the ride.” 
She stared at me and I stared at her until I said, “What about that ride over there, that would be a fun one to make out in?” She leaned back her head and scrunched up her face and replied, “That ride, The Tunnel of Love? That’s where the skankie little trampy girls go to make out with their looser boyfriends. We are so much better then that.
Hey man why go riding around in some lame dark thing when you can be ascending to the heavens with a beautiful Macedonian girl who will kissing you in the clouds while the birds fly and sing around us. Where’s your sense of adventure? And I’ll tell you right now what’s going to happen if you chicken out, want to hear it?” Lowering my head I replied, “I have the feeling I’m going to hear it no matter what I say, so go ahead.” Poking her index finger hard into my chest Tina raved on, “Just think you’re on your death bed right? And you’re all sort of falling apart and corroding and you smell really bad and then your going to think “Gosh I should of gone on that ride with Tina, if only I had done that I could now die in peace,” so I’m here to save you that agony, get what I’m saying? Just listen to your buddy Tina Fiordelisi and all will be well.”
“Firodelisi is an Italian name I thought you were Greek.”
“My father’s from Sicily and my mother’s from Kastoria but that doesn’t matter don’t try and change the subject.”
Reaching for any reason not to go skyward I said, “Well you know it’s more in the nature of the Greek and Roman Gods to sort of fly around, I mean it’s in your blood. I’m Jewish and we just don’t do the flying thing as much as the Mediterranean people do.”
Tina laughed and said, “Ok your one of The Chosen and I Tina Fiordelisi choosing you to go on the Parachute Jump with me and that’s it.” She firmly grabbed my hand and led me to the ride. It grew bigger and bigger as we approached. While we were being strapped in Tina turned to me and said, “See here we are like two little peas in a pod. Just think your happiest thought and you’ll be fine.” We were now thigh to thigh and I could feel those little bolts of energy again as our bodies touched. As we were lifting off Tina said, “You know what song I just love?” Unable to speak I just shook my head. “That one by that blind piano player Ray Charles it’s called “Unchain My Heart” here I’ll sing you a little bit of it:
Unchain my heart, baby let me be,
Unchain my heart, Cause you don’t care about me
Noticing I was starting to shake at 75 feet Tina put her hand in mine and said, “Don’t look down, look up into the sky and just be up here with me. Hey, hey look, look at me I want to tell you something.” At 150 feet I worked up the nerve to turn my head and say “Ok.” Placing her large green eyes right up to the bridge of my nose she said, “I’m so happy to be here with you. I’ve always liked you ever since that Christmas show, and when you asked me out I was so excited that I couldn’t stop singing, really I’m not just making it up. Hey we don’t have to wait to hit the top.”
The one factor I hadn’t thought of when it came to kissing is that she would simply kiss me. Tina put her warm hand on my neck and slowly moved her mouth on mine. It was so easy, especially when one is suspended in the air on a small piece of wood. The noses fell into place, our teeth didn’t bump and I discovered I could even make contact with my eyes closed.
Just then there was a sort of jolting bump and our heads suddenly separated. “Don’t worry” Tina said, “We hit the top and now the chute will open and we will slowly float back to Earth.” She rested her cheek on mine and continued, “Lets snuggle our heads and just watch. It’s as close to flying as we will ever come at least in Brooklyn” and she laughed. “Not too bad is it? Come on kiss me again before we land. It’s like magic, it really is. Do you feel it?” We were now as close as two bodies could get. I began to smile as Tina kissed me on the nose and said, “Yeah man you’re my new hero and by the way I’m hungry again got any dough left?”
We went back to Nathans and I spent the rest of my money except for my bus fare home. Looking up at the clock Tina said, “Shoot it’s after eight I was supposed to be back at seven, we have to go back to Canarsie tonight. We walked back to the apartment and as we waited for the elevator Tina smiled and said, “It’s a really slow elevator so we can make out some more.” Somewhere between the 5th and 6th floors I felt Tina’s Greco-Roman tongue enter my mouth and start to wiggle around and I wiggled my tongue with hers and it was easy.
Little did I know that part of the gene pool that produced Alexander and Aristotle was now mingling with genes that fabricated the patriarchs who led a wondering tribe to the Promised Land, and all on the tips of our tongues. When we hit the 8th floor a little bell rung. Tina looked at me and said. “I’m not done yet are you?” Without waiting for an answer she punched the lobby button giving us 16 more floors. On the way back up she said, “Kiss my neck, kiss my neck.” Fortunately I remembered that movie I had seen on TV and I felt confident that starting just about anywhere would work. As we neared the 8th floor she said, “Kiss the other side now.” On the way over from the right side of the neck to her left side there was a slight collision between my nose and Tina’s chin, which caused Tina to say, “Don’t worry, it’s ok” as she positioned my head to the correct angle. I had the feeling that Tina had done this before but it was all right.
The door opened and Tina started punching my arm and said “What a fun day huh? And you lived to tell the tale. Here’s my home number, call me soon.” I watched her disappear down the hall and right before she reached the door she swung around and blew me a kiss.
I decided to walk home that night and as I did I looked to the sky and I saw The Pleiades, the seven mythical sisters that guided the Greek sailors through the Mediterranean. There’s a belief that there’s yet another sister that flies through the heavens and sings her beautiful song to help the weary Marnier find his way home. It’s said that no one knows her name or can even see her, no one that is, but me

Neal's Tales: Dancers of Paris

Neal's Tales: Dancers of Paris

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Tin Ceiling


I was always captivated by it; its beckoning luminescence held me in awe. 
Each time I raised my head and gazed into the silver tin ceiling I saw something new. Within its many designs and textures I’d imagine worlds unknown and places that were so secret no words could describe them. There were many tin ceilings in shops and homes on the Lower East Side. Some were painted white so they looked like plaster, and occasionally a combination of colors was used. However, the ornate silver ceiling in my father’s store was always my favorite. It was divided up into squares and within the squares were all these patterns that told stories to me. Or perhaps the wonderful raised ceiling designs and I created the stories together.

            In the corner of the ceiling facing the front of the store my grandfather Joseph had embossed his initials, “J.S.H.,” and the year he installed it — 1939.
From the tin ceiling hung four glass pendants with grapevines spread and circling around a translucent milky globe. The back wall was covered with ten racks of Singer sewing machines, arranged a dozen to a row, standing black and stately with their golden raised lettering shining into the shop. There was a walnut roll top desk, a six-drawer Coats & Clark oak cabinet to store the thread, and an old swivel wooden chair, all of which rested quietly on a well-worn dark oak floor — a surface that, when traveled upon, would creak in various tones, all of which seemed like music to me.
Handcrafted pendulum clocks ticked away on each side of the door and chimed in unison on the quarter, half, and full hour. The entire facing of the store was glass with green carved wood frames. The words “Hellman Sewing Machine & Motor Company” spoke to the street from the window. It was my father’s store and his father’s before him and it stood at 19 Pike Street in the Lower East Side of New York for over sixty years.
            I would walk to the store each day after leaving my fourth grade classroom at PS177. It was an easy two-block stroll down Madison Street; the store would come into view as I made my way through the large oval tunnel that was part of the Manhattan Bridge.
And it was there that I would do my homework or just sit and dream. I loved its musky old smell of wood, machines, and motor oil as I worked away on addition and subtraction. My father would sometimes leave me there when he went out to repair machines.
            I was never alone, because in the back of the Hellman Sewing Machine & Motor
Company sewing away were my father’s mother, Sarah, and her unwed sister, Miriam Rosenkrantz. Though I knew that Sarah’s last name had to be Hellman, I thought of both of them as the Rosenkrantz sisters. I never met Sarah’s husband, Joseph, as he had died many years before I was born.
            Sarah and Miriam dwelled in the rear of the shop like ghosts from another era. Their respective heads seemed always to be bowing in reverence to their work. They spent most of their time sewing industrial-strength zippers on cases and parcels.
            They spoke to each other in German and Yiddish and when they spoke to me it was in an interesting form of broken English. “So the numbers they are doing well for you? Maybe are you hungry a little? You want we should make you a sandwich?”
            Sarah’s husband, Joseph Hellman (my grandfather), migrated with Sarah to America in the early part of the 20th century from a small town called Parchim, which was somewhere east of Hamburg. Joseph was a master carpenter and machinist and quickly saved enough money to open the Hellman Sewing Machine & Motor Company. I was told it was Joseph who put in all the fixtures and the glorious ceiling, which I loved to wonder in. No one in the store ever talked about my grandfather and when I asked my mother what had happened to Joseph she would say, “Oh, he had a some kind of illness.”
            To which I would reply, “Was it a bad flu or a disease?”
            My mother would take a breath and say, “It’s not important, he just got real sick and he passed away. Does it rally make a difference how he died?”
Sarah was quiet and brooding and dressed in dark colors to match her mood. Her silver hair always seemed to be in contrast to her black work clothing.
Miriam was lively and very kind to me. She played the mandolin, the same one she had played in a mandolin orchestra in Germany. Sometimes she would show me her fingers and say, “You see, you see all this work with sowing and machines and now I can’t play the mandolin as much anymore.” Her new love was opera. On Tuesday nights she would stand in the back of the Metropolitan Opera House for fifty cents and enjoy classics such as Othello, La Traviata, The Magic Flute, and her favorite, Turandot. She would collect the playbills and show them to me at the store. I would sit at my father’s desk as she explained what these great musical epics were about.
            Miriam was the light of the family and loved New York, while Sarah seemed to have left her heart in a small town in eastern Germany. And there we were, the sisters in the back sewing, my father repairing a machine or doing his books, and I sitting at the roll top desk gazing at the patterns on the tin ceiling and occasionally doing my homework.
            One day Miriam and I took a walk to the corner to look at the beautiful stained glass windows adorning the Pike Street Temple. Inside the windows were scenes from the Old Testament. On one of the windows was a depiction of King Saul falling on his sword. I told Miriam that this picture was very frightening to me. “Why would this man do such a thing? Why couldn’t God save him from the enemies that were surrounding him?”
            Miriam paused a moment and replied, “Oh well, you see, even though he was a king he still had to have faith and listen to God, and he didn’t. He also betrayed the trust the great prophet Samuel had in him.” As she spoke about Saul, the color seemed to disappear from her face. The lines on her brow and cheeks were pensive and she was slightly stuttering.
            Still confused I asked, “Why couldn’t God forgive him? After all he was the king of Israel. Surely the Lord of the Jews could forgive a great leader like Saul.”
            Miriam took my hand and replied, “Well this is just my opinion but I think when Saul realized what he had done he could not find a way to forgive himself. You’ll understand this story better when you’re older.”
Many of the Old Testament stories seemed mysterious to me, but they did have the power to make my eight-year-old mind wander into places that I had never been before. Those, along with stories I heard my relatives tell over Passover and other high holy days, were part of the folklore I grew up with.
Around 5:00 my mother would come by to pick me up. For reasons unknown my father’s store seemed to make her uncomfortable. There was some serious bad blood between my mother and my grandmother that I could see only in the prickly way they eyed each other. If there was an exchange of words it might be my mother saying, “Did he eat?”
And my grandmother would reply, “He had sandwich, big sandwich.”
To which my mother would shake her head, gather me up, and make an exit.
It was easy for my parents to keep secrets from an eight-year-old. If the subject were serious they spoke in Yiddish or German. I had picked up some words, but not enough to comprehend exactly what they were talking about.
My mother’s domain was elsewhere, namely our ninth-floor apartment at 40 Monroe Street. It was one block from the East River, and from our living room window I could see both the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. I would sit on the top of our sofa and watch all the many types of ships moving north and south on the river.
I’d see freighters, ferries, tugboats, occasionally a destroyer, and sometimes a great battleship traveling north to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. My father had told me the story of the HMS Hussar, a twenty-eight-gun British warship that sank in the East River a long time ago. It was carrying millions of dollars in gold to pay the British soldiers. I’d sit on the edge of that sofa and pretend that someday I’d be the one to find the golden treasure of this lost legendary vessel.
One morning as I was getting dressed I overheard a conversation in English between my parents. My father was upset about something. It almost sounded like he was crying. I opened my door and as I did my mother said, “Sol, please, 1939 was seventeen years ago. You’ve got to stop thinking about it.”
My father replied, “Every time I look out the window it’s there, it’s always there.”
To which my mother said, “So stop looking. It’s not going to change anything.”
The next day as I was lost in the maze of the tin ceiling I once again noticed the year 1939 and my grandfather’s initials. I asked Miriam why my grandfather put his initials and the year 1939 in the ceiling. “Well, he was proud of the work he did and so yes, that’s why.”
I lifted my head and replied, “Didn’t he die in 1939?”
A moment of silence, then, “Well yes, that’s why we always light the Yahrzeit candle every October 15th. But this is not conversation for young boy.”
Something in me persisted. “Did he know he was going to die and is that why he put his initials in the ceiling?”
Miriam stood up and shook her head. “Such questions. Not to ask such questions. Where do you get such ideas from?”
My first experience with death came that year when we found one of my beloved parakeets at the bottom of the cage with his little feet up in the air. Each member of the family had a different reaction. My mother said, “It’s only a bird,” and my father told me I still had two left.
Sarah commented, “Everything dies, so what is big deal? It could have been worse.”
Miriam was the kindest. “Your bird has flown to heaven to be with all the other birds that have died.”
I replied, “Miriam, tell me what happens when you die.”
“Well it’s simple. You just go back to the place where you were before you were born.” 


           “Is that where my grandfather is? And all the other people in our family who are dead?” 

            “Yes. Joseph is there with his parents and his parents before them and maybe your bird is with them as well.”

            Most family truths were revealed to me when I overheard my mother on the phone. One spring afternoon as I was leaving the apartment to play baseball I heard my mom say, “You would have jumped too if you were married to that German witch.” 
All at once everything seemed clear to me and I understood how my grandfather died. 

I now knew why my father never drove over the Brooklyn Bridge. For some reason he’d always take the Manhattan Bridge even if it took us out of our way. That bridge spanning the East River was the ghost haunting Solomon Hellman each time he looked out our ninth-story window.

            On October 15, 1939, as war spread in Europe and The Wizard of Oz was playing in theaters around America, my grandfather Joseph Hellman decided to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. I never told anyone in my family that I knew. For the first time in my life I had what I would later learn was a feeling of compassion for my father. I wanted him to know I knew and how sad I felt for him, but I couldn’t tell him.
            I continued to love the tin ceiling, as it was probably the last thing Joseph created before he took his life. I’d gaze at all the designs and look at his initials and wonder if it were his way of saying hello to a grandchild he would never meet.

            Or perhaps it was just his way of saying goodbye.