Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Loneliest Night of the Year for Jews

It was the summer when every pink transistor radio was playing beach party music, and every girl every place wanted to be Annette Funicello. It was the summer of skimpy two-piece bathing suits that were not quite bikinis, and teased hair; of smoking candy cigarettes like they were the real thing; of begging to be allowed to shave your legs. 
We were in Far Rockaway — my parents, my grandparents, my sister and me — staying in a little yellow rented bungalow with a screen door. It was the screen door that impressed us the most, even more than the ocean a block away. We were from the Bronx. In the Bronx you don’t have screen doors.  
In Rockaway we lived like regular Americans, walking around in halter tops and short-shorts, with cheap rubber flip-flops on our feet. We ate on paper plates with plastic knives and forks. There was watermelon every night, and corn on the cob, not corn out of a can. 
Late on Friday afternoons my father and grandfather would show up at the bungalow, pale from their weekday city lives, ready to transform themselves into beach bums. After my father changed into a sports shirt and a pair of plaid Bermuda shorts, and my grandfather substituted a short sleeved white shirt for his usual long sleeved white shirt, we’d walk half a dozen blocks to the China Palace. This was our ritual. I thought all Jewish families celebrated Shabbos with eggrolls and wonton soup. Sure, spareribs, why not? 
But this one night I want to tell you about, this night that was different from all other nights, my father stopped, right there outside the restaurant, and inhaled. 
“Eve,” he said to my mother, “I  smell something.” 
“You’re standing next to the vent, Morty, of course you  smell something.” 
“I’ve got a headache, Eve. Just from smelling, I’ve got a headache.” 
“Stop it, Morty.” My mother wasn’t having it.  “If you’re so concerned, we can tell the waiter to leave it out.”
At that, my grandfather jumped in. “If you have to tell the waiter, already it’s not good. What guarantee do you have that he’ll remember?” 
My father and grandfather were worried. They’d heard rumors. This is what men thought about, alone in the city, in the heat, with their families far away by the cool, wet, ocean. On the long Friday afternoon subway rides, the men worked themselves up with worry.
The women, made of tougher stuff, wanted egg foo young. 
“Come in,” my grandmother said, ushering us toward the front door. “If we feel sleepy, we’ll take a nap later. A headache? A headache won’t kill us.”
Who knows if it would have killed us. We never found out because before we could even order, while we were still dipping our crispy noodles into the duck sauce — ”Duck sauce, Morty? You think they put it in the duck sauce? Eat it. You love your duck sauce" — the woman at the table next to ours keeled over. Keeled right over onto the floor. Her chair fell back and she was O - U - T, out. Out like a light. Fainted.
She’s fainted. Fainted. Fainted. Fainted.
It buzzed around the restaurant like a gust of stinky hot air.
Then:  MSG. It must have been the MSG. Sure, what else could it be? MSG. MSG. MSG.
The place emptied out in three minutes flat. My family made an instant conversion from China Palace Shabbos to White Castle Hamburgers Shabbos.
A couple days later, there was talk in the sandy alleyway where the women spent late afternoons hanging up wet bathing suits and towels. 
Maybe that lady, you know the one, the one that fainted in the Chinese restaurant, maybe she was just a little bit pregnant. 
Sure, have you seen her stomach lately? Did you see it in that orange bathing suit? 
Could be she had a little indiscretion, a little accident, even. 
I see the way she is with Feingold, the pharmacist. How many people get shmutz in their eye every day, she needs him to take it out with a Q-tip?
And always with the smile, always making with her tushy. 
Fainting, that’s a sign, don’t you think? 
Could be. Could be. 
That woman at the table next to ours, maybe she was pregnant. Or maybe she wasn’t. But as far as my father was concerned, the vote was in. The verdict was guilty. And the blame was placed firmly on the MSG. He didn’t even know what the initials stood for. All he knew was: stay away from it.
Everything changed for the worse after that. My mother and grandmother, bored by the predictability of White Castle hamburgers, turned their attention to cleaning. God forbid a speck of sand should make its way into our little bungalow. My grandfather spent Friday nights with other weekend men, playing pinochle. He never won anything and it aggravated his ulcer. 
My father started in with crossword puzzles, which in his case was not an individualized sport. “What’s a five-letter word for a wooden shoe, Eve?” Or:“T-blank-blank-K; what does that spell, kids?”
Somehow, in extreme misery, my family managed to drag itself through the rest of that Rockaway summer. Then we returned to the Bronx and staggered into the fall. Friday nights were long, sad expanses of unrelieved deprivation.
And then, before we knew it, it was late December. Christmas Eve. The loneliest night of the year for Jews. Let’s face it, what’s Christmas Eve without a pu-pu platter? Something inside my mother cracked.
“Listen to me, Morty,” she said, through clenched teeth, “no one is trying to poison you. It’s Christmas Eve! For God’s sake, we’re going.”
We bundled into our hats and scarves and walked around the corner to meet up with my grandparents. They were standing outside of their apartment building, waiting for us with nervous smiles on their faces. 
Together we made our way toward the Grand Concourse, and that night, in the dark recesses of the Pink Pagoda, we gorged ourselves on moo shu pork, shrimp in lobster sauce, and sweet and sour everything. 
Life was back to normal. Somehow, we’d learned to live with the threat of MSG. We were survivors.