I come from a hostile, fractured, uneducated, anachronistic caricature of a working-class Jewish family. This is Awake and Sing, Portnoy’s Complaint territory. This is the material Fran Drescher and Seinfeld and Larry David now get cute with — they leave out all the very ugly shvatsa or worse exhortations. And the breakdowns, the hate, the mocking of the disabled, visits from Children’s Services agencies, etc., they leave that out.
My mother was an on again-off again temp secretary, old school and proud of her stereotype — haggling for thermal underwear in the Lower East Side, intentionally bruising fruit in Waldbaums to get a price break, wielding her chutzpah and ability to rip apart store managers as a badge of honor. She’d fudge on the return address of outward bound mail by claiming the nearest town with a high per capita income as residence.
She was alternately stingy and lavish toward her children — generous with food, medical care, and nurturing; denying them toys, independence, love. Mom was the type who if you sat around the house during school vacation she would accuse you (gotcha-like) of not having any friends, not being popular.
She married a man she apparently despised, mostly because he wasn’t handy, lacked common sense and didn’t have the quick wit of Shecky Green. I heard the term common sense used as an epithet my whole life.
The family joined in by taking mocking potshots at our father. To make Mom laugh. He would made no bones about running upstairs, retreating into his walk-in closet and bawling loudly. We’d hear him through the vents.
Plastic covering was on the living room furniture removed only for the mythic “company” that never came. My mother sat at the kitchen table most nights reading The Personals, bemoaning her husband’s inability to competently plane a door, and espousing a world view centered around catered affairs, more common sense, and the goy’s icy emptiness.
My father worked the counter in Uncle Jack’s auto parts store and took manic respite in television watching, whooping it up over the Mets or professional wrestling, while Mom scoffed in contempt at the foolishness of the idiot box.
I, uh, didn’t quite fit in. Most of my life I heard two things very loudly and very often:
1) My Mom saying over and over to my father, “Milt, we gotta’ do something with him, we’ve gotta put him away someplace.” He would just flip the channel to The Three Stooges.
2) “There’s the front door, you don’t like it, there’s the front door, leave.” Also, Mom.
Both 1 and 2 happened.
At 16, with the help of some friends I stole wood from houses under construction and built a chest-high shack in the woods in the middle of some high tension fields to live in.
Still just a boy I’d wake up in the middle of the night in complete darkness and await morning by burning leaf after leaf of the Suffolk County Yellow Pages in a metal garbage can for warmth, light and activity. My friends thought my place in the woods was an adventure at first and visited for a little while, but soon they stopped coming (SATs, finals, dates) and I was alone.
The Seinfeld cast remind me of the people, my clan included, I imagined were in the cars on the service roads I used to hitch-hike (the one’s who wouldn’t stop for me) – - families going someplace to fight or make fun of somebody or something. Without me.