I didn't expect to see him today. After all, going to a large bar mitzvah with all the Mariner's family present, I didn't expect to run into anything or anyone from my past.
And it's not like Rabbi Math knew me or my past or even that I included him in my past. That's not how life-changing moments work. They work when all a person is doing is their job...
And Boom! Someone's life changes.
It must have been the very early 1990s and times were lean. Graduate school, student loans, part-time jobs all demanded only the essentials got paid for. The rest had to be scrounged for.
Which is why I snuck into the Village Temple's Yom Kipper service at Cooper Union Square. Actually, it was pretty easy. On the second day, people came and went so walking past the ticket table looking hungry was enough to snag a seat in the back.
I wasn't religious at all. I wasn't even interested. Still not. But on the holiest of the holy and the highest of the high, at that time, not observing just felt too risky.
The evening program began and somewhere, in between the standing up and sitting down and my listening to prayers and songs I had no idea how to say or sing, Rabbi Math began talking.
He looked hungry. And he looked tired. And there was, like, still an hour to go.
He began telling this story about his mother in Florida. One day, she called him, saying he had to come down, something was wrong, he had to come down right now.
When an elderly parent calls and tells you to get on a plane, you get on a plane. He got down there as soon as he could.
The light in the refrigerator had burnt out.
Rabbi Math stood there staring at the dark refrigerator completely bewildered. And then it dawned on him.
“Hineni.” Rabbi Math told all of us, who five minutes earlier had wished it was dinner time but now sat still, listening.
It is what Moses answered, when, standing before the burning bush, he heard his name called.
"Hineni", Rabbi Math said to his mother.
That night, I wrote that down on a tiny piece of paper "Hineni" and stuck it on my bulletin board.
Twenty-five-odd years later, I had to write about what inspired me to face the page every day. There were precious sayings by several important people stuck on my bulletin board: Jean Cocteau; Frank Lloyd-Wright; Satyajit Ray.
But on the tiniest of paper scraps was the word, “Hineni.”
Bits and pieces of Dana are slowly beginning to visit other places.
Yet, she is like a lighthouse.
When you least expect it, her brilliant light explodes into clarity and words that change the world. Over the next while, old stories and new moments of Dana will be noted. What Dana Says is worth pulling close and holding tight.
Originally posted August 3, 2010.
"[Writing] makes me feel so close to my mind."
"Drag the brainless pen across the passive paper and see the result."
And on facing a blank canvas:
"The canvas is just four lines. What I put down is the fifth line. Let's see what the fifth line is." ** Related Posts:
Fifty days after leaving Egypt, Moses went up the mountain to receive a lot of stuff.
Now in the Ten Commandments we all know that Edward G. Robinson started trouble, whipping up all the hundreds of extras into a wild orgy of gold worshiping and pretend sex that took three weeks to shoot (prompting one extra to ask who she had to fuck to get out of the film).
But this woman at the all-night Shavuot celebration told a different story. Gathering all the dancing, singing, cheesecake-eating community around, she unfolded a tale of Moses' sister, Miriam, who on her way to get water, stepped into the the core of all that Moses was about to receive. And there an old woman told her that while Moses would be doing some heavy lifting, she, Miriam, would bring back the gift of space.
For it wasn't the water that made a river, but the space, the canal in which it flowed, that made it a river.
It was that space that Moses created when he parted the Red Sea and that space that the Hebrews were too frightened to step into. But Miriam did, singing and dancing and leading the people to the other side.
And it was that space between words that would guide, not the words themselves.
So Miriam took that gift and brought it back and it became the space that allowed water flowed in the desert.
I have never known her to walk in a room and leave it unchanged. It's just never happened.
I have never known her to talk to someone and not change their lives.
I have only known her to melt people's fury, resentment, fears, crazy-ass beliefs into their hearts and re-introduce them to their own sense of hope.
Like above. We were at dinner and by the time we paid the check the young waitress (that's her on the right) was clinging to every word Amy said.
And it was Amy who once told her story to an auditorium of 500 people about becoming a writer even though she was told she should only be a secretary; how she fought through her own doubts, once facing a blank wall in a Paris hotel and determining right then and there she would write the best screenplay ever (which she did); how she sought the words that would propel her always forward.
It was because of her and that Paris wall, that I too faced a blank wall in an Argentinean hostel, determining right then and there....
She was the one after reading something I had stuffed away who said "This must be published." What if I had not heeded her words? This wouldn't have happened.
And those words she sought that she so generously shared with me? They are my roots, my touchstone and my daily commitment to keep facing blank walls and always propel forward.
I took one look at that photo and blurted out, "Len, you were trouble!"
Len just laughed.
But one look at that cocky stance and what else could you think? All 18 proud years of him barely filling out his sailor uniform but bursting with vim and vigor, standing outside the house he grew up in, vegetable garden in the back, small town, one-room school house, and a ton of brothers who could make their own basketball team.
71 years later he still got that wicked dimple and that smart-alecky swagger.
Stomping three times around the mall early in the morning, walking up the stairs, not down, down was the easy way, reroofing his house, clearing the gutters, terracing the backyard garden, laying down patio tiles (97 stones to be exact), tending the flowers, the fruit trees, the lawn, the kids, the home, my dad, the world...
While recovering from a red-eye, the fragility of being here gets revisited.
Originally posted April 28, 2008
Across from Greeley Square between the serious men's clothing store and the Dunkin Donut she is lying on the ground and there are a lot of people over her making sure her shopping bags are O.K. and so is her purse. There is a cup of something by her and the security guy or police chief or whatever he is, is talking into a walkie-talkie.
The two guys and me hang out on the curb by the flower pots and watch a skinny homeless guy shout at the crowd. He looks a bit like the guy who kicked me in the ass when I bumped into him once on a rainy day. Wouldn't be surprised if it were. This is his neighborhood.
The two guys said that she began to fall and the homeless guy caught her and was shouting "get help get help!!"
But once non-homeless guys showed up and shooed him away he got upset. After all, he was there first and just because he was homeless didn't mean he was less of a hero.
The daily convoy of twenty-five blaring police cars roar up 6th Avenue. None stop.
"She fell. Her heart, her blood pressure or diabetic. They give her an orange juice with some sugar. Look, she is fine."
A third man joins us. His patter sounds like poems made of rain on a roof. When I ask if it is Arabic, his friend nods. "I speak Danish too. And Spanish and English and Arabic."
We look across the street at the woman again. Two ambulances come as she sits up and talks on her cell phone.
The guy says to me, "We are nothing. A heart, or something and we fall... we are nothing."
It was on Clinton Street between Rivington and Stanton. There was a cat clock that wagged its tail and rolled its eyes to each ticking second. The leather seats were burgundy and the lights were of course florescent. Only uptown stores where rich people shopped had real lights.
This was Kaplan's shoes. And we went there for our once-a-year-ugly-pair-of-oxfords that wouldn't become hip for another twenty years. In the interim, the meaner girls in their white go-go boots called me "baby shoes" which is devastating if you're only 8 and suddenly in the 4th grade with older kids.
Still, fashion exile or not, Florence's rule was whatever you picked at Kaplan's you had to wear out of the store. This showed commitment to the shoe you'd be with all year. And since it was the only items we always bought new, you had to really know if the shoe fit.
The pressure was tough. But those ugly oxfords were made so good, and Mr. Kaplan's measurements were so precise, somehow everything worked out, except for the part of looking like a dork from a-turn-of-the-century picture by Jacob Reis.
I spend the next forty years wearing shit that looks hot if only to avoid shoes and shoes stores like that. But there is a God and she does wear lots of shoes because ugly became even hipper than before, especially if the jeans were tight. It was time to wear something other than hot shit. It was time to find a place where the oxfords were made so good and the measuring so precise.
It's not the first place that comes to mind when I think oh gee where should a 15 year old girl be sent for her last year of high school so she doesn't do any more running around 1970's New York night streets.
But Philadelphia it was, with family who must have been nuts to take in a teenager, but who also paid a lot of money for me to go to this Quaker school right down the street.
From a New York City public high school with a billion kids, no sports, lots of art and academics only pretending to teach us stuff...
...to this teeny tiny carpet-on-the-floors, full-length lockers CLEAN building with modern toilets that flushed. And the bathroom stalls even had DOORS and the senior class was about maybe 32 kids - give or take. It also had lots of sports and some arts and academics that you were actually expected to learn.
The thing about New York is everybody knows what street you're from and everybody knows what you know from that street. So I assumed all these new kids knew what I knew.
The thing about kids who have been attending the same small Quaker school together for years and years and years is they all thought I knew what street they were from and what they knew from that street.
Lemme tell you we didn't know jack shit what the other was saying, including any word that had an 'R' in it. I remember having to spell out 'furry'. They swore I said 'fuhvrwee'. I swore that I had to like dig a tunnel with my mouth in order to say 'ferrrrrrrreerrrrrreeeee'.
Learning to sound like an American was a skill that has paid off handsomely and I thank each and every one of them for that. I do hope that the favor was returned by my teaching them the proper way to say fuck, fucking, fuck you and motherfucker and I do hope it helped them in their own endeavors
Still, across the abyss of language and culture something happened. I became friends with people who may have not known anything about the lower east side, but they knew a lot about heart and soul. And they became friends with me - not the girl who might have been maybe running a bit too wild on 1970's New York night streets but with the beginnings of a self that was preparing to go write the world a story.
It's forty years later.
Let me rephrase that. It's fucking forty years later.
And I swear looking into each face - no matter some of us have more hair or less hair (mostly less hair), or if we are bigger or smaller (maybe a little bit of both) - there still is this indomitable aliveness and I see the place I became my own beginning.
He watched our lives change by the names that joined us on our boxes and the names that disappeared from our boxes.
He saw hundreds of beautiful decorated letters arrive and witnessed their dwindling numbers as computers became our envelopes.
He dropped off packages at our doors, said hello to us by name and always asked how things were doing.
And seconds after I decided to give up my dreams, he was the one who rang my bell with a registered letter telling me I had won a grant and to cash the big check enclosed therein. It took all his diplomacy to get the letter back so he could scan it.
He was there at the boxes while it poured outside or when the sidewalk buckled with heat. He showed up in snow and he showed up on beautiful days that were meant for playing hookey.
And he often took his last brief break of the day in the vestibule, where Olga would join him after work. They'd sit and talk about grandchildren, children, work and life.
How many of you know your postal delivery person by name?
If you died, would he or she pay their respects?
Tom sent an email around the other day. Robert was retiring and his last day was the next day.
Emails flew around the building, plans were quickly made, hearts broke and almost every mailbox held a card to Robert. Thanking him for a life he spent putting catalogs and flyers and bills and sometimes even beautifully decorated letters into small boxes that let him know the mundane and the magnificent, the heartbreaks and joys in this old building.
MY PRIVATE CONEY presents IT WAS HER NEW YORK, the short stories that accompany the work-in-progress video and photo collection of the same name (myprivateconey.com - media link - IT WAS HER NEW YORK). The stories and the media explore the tender rubble that holds both my mother, Florence's and New York's soul as one disappears into old age and the other into gentrification. All are real observations and/or experiences with very little tall-tale telling.
Except when it makes the story better.
Please visit myprivateconey.com for additional information and sample works.