Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Hasid Walks Into a Laundromat

I learned something new about my people tonight.

During the Nine Days leading up to Tisha B'Av, Satmar Hasidim do not launder their clothes, sheets, towels or anything.

This piece of information was imparted to me by the elderly, stoop-shouldered, limp-haired, snaggle-toothed laundromat lady in the stretch lavendar pants whom I overhead talking to the Spanish guy who was mopping the floor.

It was 9:50 p.m. and the joint was closing in ten minutes.

I was the only non-employee of the Monroe Laundromat at that hour, hastily tossing hot clothes from the dryer back into the hamper in order to make a quick getaway to the bungalow where I had left Little Babe, two hours ago, to watch anime on his i-Pod Touch. What I overhead, in fact, was the laundromat lady explaining that "the Jewish guy" had come in earlier to request that the laundromat stay open on Thursday night until 1 am to allow the women of Kiryas Joel, the nearby Satmar village, to catch up on their dirty laundry of the past nine days. Though the laundromat had accomodated this request in years past, it was now under new ownership and the lavender-trousered lady had to check with her boss.

"They've got this thing called the Nine Days where they don't do normal stuff," she explained, with a measure of authority. "It leads up to a fast day."

The Spanish guy nodded respectfully, mopping his way around my sneakered feet. The sweat from my recent workout was drying on my skin and I suddenly felt class-conscious, wondering if I appeared as a spoiled, highly-educated or wealthy summer resident of this Catskills town, given to the luxury of going to the gym while the laundromat workers toiled late into the night; a cavalier housekeeper given to doing her laundry hastily and without care for wrinkles.

The mopping man wore a brace around his middle such as those worn by movers or weight-lifters. He was muscular and compact, likely my age. I was startled to find him gazing intently at me while I watched him work. His eyes communicated something I did not expect; it seemed to be a recognition of kinship. It was a friendly, familiar glance.

Busted in the act of staring, I blurted out to no one in particular, "I observe the Nine Days as well but not in same way as the Satmar. Obviously...because I'm washing my clothes. But I'm also Jewish."

The laundromat lady nodded sagely. The man bowed slightly. I smiled in a goofy, self-conscious manner, lifting my laundry bin to carry it out. The man held the door for me, held me in his gaze. I felt like the princess of the laundromat.

As I was walking to the car, I caught my reflection in the laundromat window and noted that I looked like anything but a princess. Sinewy arms set off by my black tank top, black tights beneath my black shorts lengthening my legs, hair pulled back into a messy ponytail, skin darkened by the summer sun, I looked as foreign and exotic in Monroe as a Satmar Hasid, neither overtly American or Jewish, vaguely Mediterranean, extremely Manhattan; streamlined and restless, a woman of indeterminate age driven to do her laundry late at night.

Baby Doll, 2 a.m., Bungalow Night

At 2 in the morning, it is scary as all hell to walk out of the bungalow by oneself, leaving a sheltered place of warmth, walls and other humans for the yawning black velvet of the woodsy night.

I'm probably the last person to walk alone at night along the perimeter of a dense forest known to harbor bears but my Poms started barking softly, in unison, and in a spurt of energy borne of altruism and work-related panic, I jumped out of bed, slipped my feet into my Born clogs, leashed the dogs and stepped into the impenetrable darkness.

In my black polka dot baby doll nightie.

Fully believing that there was an axe murder hiding in the woods to my right, a serial rapist crouching behind the garbage cans, a family of hungry bears under my bungalow and a rabid raccoon up a tree, I tip-toed onto the grass, exhorting my dogs to pee and get it over with.

Before Cropsie could dart from the parking lot to kill me.

But Alfie and Nala were thrilled at this rare nighttime outing and took their time to sniff every blade of grass and scout out the most opportune spots to pee.

And so, I endured ten minutes of terror, shivering in my thin baby doll, darting my head from side to side in a fit of hyper-vigilance: was that a cracking branch to my left? A growl in the near distance? The unmistakable sound of breathing coming from the trees???

Before returning to the comfort of my cabin, unleashing the dogs to dive underneath my bed in search of their sleeping lair, setting up my laptop on the porch and putting up a pot of coffee to begin my work day at half past two in the morning, a Gap hoodie now thrown atop my baby doll for warmth and protection against the probing eyes of the sinister, surrounding woods.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mortification at the Movies


Did it occur to anyone in Hollywood that fans of Sacha Baron Cohen's edgy/outrageous humor might be coming to his latest flick with family members in tow?

Specifically... one's sweet and especially innocent 14-year-old son?

Well, innocent no more, thanks to the proliferation of penises, deluge of dildos, scenes of actual sex, heart-stopping Hitler references, gaudy gay overlay, Mideast mangling, black-baiting, tongue-burning language torture and generally perverted prank that is Bruno.

Make no mistake: I live for this stuff. The jokes and sight gags were coming fast and furious, the audience around me was nearly frenzied with hysterical laughter and I had tears streaming down my face from repeated convulsions of mirth.

The problem was balancing my enjoyment of the movie's breathtaking chutzpah with sheer mortification, for sitting to my left, my young teen was watching simulated gay oral sex, a naked dominatrix with overstuffed boobs weilding a whip and other such visual delights.

More than once, a reflexive maternal hand flew up over his eyes to block his vision...shaking, because I was shaking with hysterics.

Whether or not Bruno is a good film is up for debate. It is certainly a shockfest, one which I would see again and again. It also showcases its star's ingenuity, fearlessness and intelligence, not to mention lithe, waxed and often unclothed body.

The issue is that Bruno, and several other films like it, need a special warning to go with them, something that prepares filmgoers for the terrific squirming that will overtake them if they are seeing the movie in the company of, say, their children or -- horrors! -- their parents.

When we left the theatre on Saturday night, I noted that my shirt was sticking to my body. I had literally broken out into a sweat with worry about how this film would effect my son and equally, what he would think of the mother who sanctioned his consumption of this lurid entertainment.

It reminded me of the nearly-equally icky time I watched The Heartbreak Kid with my parents at their home. Except then, I wasn't worried that I was poisoning someone's developing mind.

But perhaps I needn't have fretted. Seated afterwards at Fine and Shapiro, the kosher deli on West 72nd Street, I asked Little Babe for his assessment.

"Funny," he declared, biting into a hamburger. "But really, really weird."

Friday, July 10, 2009

Shabbat Shalom from the Love Shack

Friday morning at the bungalow.

Little Babe rode off to camp on his bicycle.

Alfie and Nala the Pomeranians frolicked in the grass, pulling on their extra-long leashes.

Big Babe dropped an email from Thessaloniki, where he is spending Shabbat.

Middle Babe called to say she was taking the day off from work and catching a 3 pm bus to Boston.

HOBB texted a Shabbat Shalom from Maine, where he is stuck for the weekend at a cello camp...with a small group of retired, overly-serious amateur musicians in a remote locale near the Canadian border.

And I set up my laptop on the porch of the Love Shack to tackle a full day's work, with the lush forest looming before me and the promise of Shabbat whispering in my ear.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Midsummer Midlife Hair Crisis

That's me on the porch of our bungalow earlier today.

It's probably not too visible between the oversized shades and American flag but those are PIGTAILS sprouting out of my head, placed there to contain the voluminous and anarchic nature of my hair, which I am seeking to grow this summer.

Call it my midsummer midlife crisis: a stab at long hair.

Since childhood, I've always been a shorthaired girl, with brief forays into Joan Jett-like shaggy overgrown do's and a few grade-school years of long straight hair and bangs, which invariably ended up being cut too short by my mother.

A layered bob has been my classic look but for some reason I was inspired to grow out my locks this spring and have therefore added several inches to my hair...both horizontally as well as vertically.

You see, my hair tends to grow sideways and even upwards.

Hence the pigtails.

So far, the hair has gotten rave reviews but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that getting it to look good takes waaaay more time than I am used to expending on grooming matters. I'm a squeeze of the eyelash curler, swab of the eyeliner, swat of the lipgloss kind of chick. I have never had my hair styled and frankly scoff at women my age who have such low regard for their time as to spend it inside a beauty parlor.

(For the record, I have no problem with regular mani-pedis and consider them essential to mental health. But hairstyling?????)

So, there it is -- my midlife crisis: my hair.

No fancy red sportscars, no dalliances with younger men, no running off to "discover" myself.

I already have a black Honda Accord, two fabulous younger men in my life and discovered myself a long time ago -- around the age of nine, to be exact -- when my mother broke the shocking news to me that I would never turn into a boy.

Though I was stuck being a girl, I vowed to become a spy and traveler, writing my adventures down.

And that is what I do, snug as a bug in a rug in my bungalow, late into the night.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Eden Invaded

Little Babe called at 9:30 to let me know that the camp bus arrived back from bowling and that he was going to sleep over at his friend Colin's house. Could I meet him right away in the parking lot with a change of clothes, some Axe deoderant, toothbrush and his i-Touch charger?

Having just arrived back in the bungalow after a day spent sprinting to and from appointments in Manhattan, I let the duffle bag fall from my shoulder and stood still for approximately 5 seconds before assembling the requested items and tossing them into a backpack. Though the last thing I wanted to do was go back out into the chilly rain, the sleepover at Colin's house also entailed Little Babe's good friend Morry and was irresistable. Three-way sleepover. YEAAAH!

In the kitchen, Alfie and Nala the Pomeranians reacclimated themselves to the bungalow from which they had been banished for several days after their friendly barking became the cause of neighborhly complaints. Stepping over them, HOBB began unpacking some of our bags and settling in for the July 4th weekend, reacclimating himself to the cabin he hadn't seen since Monday morning.

While the rain beat a tattoo on the ceiling and I readied myself to run to the car, I found myself possessed of a peculiar, territorial feeling; what was he doing in my house?

Once outside, the soggy ground spongy beneath my sneakered feet, I sought to understand the resentful sentiment that had taken root in my heart. The inner sanctum where I had spent the previous three nights in splendid, spouse-free isolation had just been invaded, my solitary Eden colonized.

I allowed myself to dwell in the moment of outrage, my bungalow heart feeling caged, obstinately resisting the necessary transition from me to we.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Memory of Michael Jackson, Long Ago

My mother had her purse stolen out of a shopping cart at the Pathmark in Queens sometime in the fall of 1972. A friend suggested that she place an ad for it in the local Pennysaver, promising a reward. Within a day, she got a call from a teenage boy in New Hyde Park who said that he found her purse in a garbage can somewhere near his home. There was no money in it, but it seemed that all her cards were there.

My mom thanked him profusely and made arrangements to retrieve it at his home.

Worrying at the last minute that the call might be a trap, she asked me to come along. I was 12, tall and skinny, owing to my newly-discovered talent for starving myself. We drove the short distance from our home in Douglaston, arriving at the designated address, which turned out to be a few blocks away from my cousins Rena and Mordy.

The difference between the two homes was dramatic. While my cousin's modest ranch had mowed lawns in front and back and a well-maintained facade, this home - a sad wooden cottage -- looked practically abandoned. The grass grew knee-high in the front lawn. Shingles were missing from the sloping roof. A chain-fence was orange with rust. Windows were half-covered with torn or crooked shades.

My mother gripped my hand and we rang the doorbell. Within minutes, a scraggly, underfed boy greeted us. We stepped tentatively through a darkened, littered hallway and followed him down a flight of stairs. The air was musty and smelled like a cat's litterbox.

The family appeared to live in the basement, but there was no adult to be found. A tinny radio was playing. Seated around an oblong folding table sat a group of unwashed kids with my mother's purse at the front end. The most senior member -- a boy in his late teens -- presided over the gathering.

"I found this in the garbage near the playground," the boy said. It came out like "I foun this inna gahbahj neah the playgrown." He didn't smile.

The kids around the table stared hungrily at us. I felt acutely uncomfortable, like a princess visiting from a nearby kingdom, encountering commoners for the first time.

I was aware of my mother's shock. She nodded, affirming that the purse was hers.

"Thank you very much," she said.

The boy arose and walked towards us. I felt my mother stiffen. The eyes of the seated children continued to stare avidly. The boy stood before us. He handed her the purse.

"Here," he said. It came out "heah."

"Thank you," she said again, reaching into her pocket and taking out an envelope.

The boy reached out a knobby hand.

"Thanks," he said.

"Well, goodbye," my mother said. "Thank you very much. It would have been a big pain to replace my driver's license and all the cards."

The kids stared mutely.

Within a minute, we were back out on the street, practically running towards our car.

Looking back on that episode, two details stand out in vivid relief:

That my mother had been wracked with remorse afterwards, having given the kids only a $5 bill.

And that the song on the radio was a new and ubiquitous hit single -- ABC -- by the Jackson 5, whose lead singer was a tiny dynamo named Michael.