Mexican Days: Inflation on the Paseo de la Reforma

I sat on the grassy, wide banks of the Paseo de la Reforma, a river-wide boulevard going from Chapultepec Park, the tony end of Mexico City, through the commercial heart of the city to La Plaza de la Constitucion, El Zocalo, the ancient main plaza, eight miles away, where the Aztecs declared their capitol in 1325. I sat on a bench in the morning sun in the Red Zone (the Zona Rosa), near the fabled Hotel Geneva in the sixties, when it still had a jaunty, Parisian reputation not sullied by discretion. I had completed the first half of my usual morning ritual…a visit to a fabulous bakery on Rio Lerma, a street three blocks away, to lay in a store of Mexico’s best morning pastries. The bakery, with a forbearing nod to the French intrusion into its culture, had croissants and brioche, as well as the best of Mexico: orejas (elephant ears), bolillos (rolls), conchas ad infinitum and coffee. I had learned the day before, or the day before that, my first visit there, the how-to in a Mexican bakery…the tongs, the metal tray…I watched so I knew the punctilio, not someone who needed instruction in the local customs.

The second half of the morning ritual was the part I was about to work on…in the bask of a warm sun…indulging in my culinary trove. I was pleased by my restraint, not dipping into the bag on the way to the bench, tempted as I was. I sat, chose my first delight and began, lost in thought about the day before, a late afternoon in Plaza Garibaldi, where mariachi bands, playing at the same time, competed to be picked by a party, a wedding, or to be engaged by a suitor to play for his lady…the ultimate display of affection. Plaza Garibaldi…and then I got lost in thought about an earlier visit to Victor’s, The purveyor of Mexican crafts housed in a bare-bones walk-up commercial building off Reforma, as nondescript a building as any in New York’s garment center…ah, but the treasures within. A bite of a croissant and then I got lost in a swirl of time at Victor’s. Three high-ceilinged rooms…plain, army-green pressed metal shelving and plain wood tables with a high tide splash of crafts from every indigenous group in Mexico…tin masks, bark paintings, wool ‘painting’, fantastical wood carving, ceramics, weaving…Victor and I alone, the Toscanini of Mexican crafts, directing my attention to the most interesting, as best he could with limited English…talking to someone with limited Spanish. Victor, who knew the artisans all over Mexico, who visited them and bought from them for his museum of crafts and there I was, thinking about everything I should have bought, but didn’t. Lamenting…an inevitable companion to the joy felt at what I did buy. But back to the croissant…a bite, a sip…then a flash on my left.

It was a kid, quick as a tow truck, racing to an accident, who snapped me from my morning idyll. He skidded to a halt in front of me, declaring tacitly, but irrevocably. “hey man, you’re mine”. And, on his haunches, he set up his shoe shine box with a raised wooden form in the shape of a foot, took my right foot, put it on the form and began brushing away the morning’s grime…then the left foot. After that he stared applying…with bare hands…shoe polish.  Not twenty seconds had yet elapsed and the assault on my shoes was in full swing. And so far without a word. Then the patter started…in English…engaging me, the mark, in easy conversation…”Where you from?” Too canny to fall for a fast-talking 10-year-old, I asked “how much?” before the assault could progress further.

He kept working. “This is the best shine in Mexico. Never need another shine while you are here. Best “wox” (his pronunciation of wax). I get from Sanborn’s…very expensive.” The shine still did not have a price tag, but the practiced build-up before revealing the price sailed on. And the longer it went on, I knew, the more absurd the price would be. I took my foot off the shoe box form…”how much?” (knowing the standard price was about 5 pesos, $.35 to $.40). “I have a wife and baby at home. Very important for them…and my grandparents”. He tried lifting my foot back on the form. “Ten dollars,” he said, “but you never need another shine.” But before negotiating the price down could begin, a young woman, an American, ran up to me and said breathlessly, “he’s going to tell you a shine is $10. Don’t pay it…it’s only five pesos.” And off she ran, as if trying to get away from an explosive device she had just set.

And the kid, now about 90 percent of the way through the shine, threw his rags, brush and “wox” back in the box, said a hateful “son of a bitch” and stomped off.

Mexican Days: In the Belly of Cholula’s Pyramid

We usually have better after-the-fact judgment than before-the-fact judgment, although the former imposed on the latter might stop us from doing things we want to, but might not, if we gave them a rational second thought. But impetuous wins out, most times, over good sense. And since we survive the foolish things most times, we think of them as just colorful escapades. Then, of course, it’s on to the next escapade with the same after-the-fact sobriety.

For those of us who are card-carrying claustrophobics, going deeper and deeper into the interior of a pyramid might seem seriously foolish. But thinking that I have enough sense not to do something insanely foolish, I was ready to go. But first a description of where I was…Cholula, Mexico, a town near Puebla, two hours southeast of Mexico City. It was the mid 1960s. I read the history, likely woven with a touch of myth, but taken together, it was all too fantastic to resist. Cholula when I arrived, was a sleepy, dusty, seared-by-the-wind town that, hopefully, had seen better days. It’s a town that boasted that in its heyday (early 16th century with 100,000 inhabitants) of having a temple for every day of the year (or nearly so). It also had the largest pyramid on the planet (by volume), including the pyramids of Egypt. It was built in five iterations (one on top of the other), starting a thousand years before Cortes landed in Mexico (1519). At its base it is 450 meters on each side. But in time its contours were covered, over many untended, overgrown years, by thick vegetation that masked the architectural treasure beneath. So it looked to anyone passing by like a rendering of nature, a hill that was the highest point in town. And Cholulans did what they always did…built a temple, this one on top of this pyramid that looked like a hill.

The town at midday didn’t seem to move and keeping out of the sun was a necessary preoccupation. I drove on a dirt road on the only side of the hill that had a road. If there was an entrance, it had to be here. I finally did come across a rusted wrought iron gate held tight by a pirate’s lock and chain, barring the entrance to what looked like a cave, not befitting a pyramid billed as the biggest in the world. No one was around. The excavation of the interior, started in 1937, was paused some years before I got there. It was eerily, desolately quiet. There was a makeshift booth by the gate, presumably for tickets to the interior, unused, I was sure, for years. I lamented my luck to have found the biggest pyramid in the world and was faintly disappointed by not being able to get in. The claustrophobic in me congratulated myself for having tried, when, out of nowhere, came a caretaker with a Rime of the Ancient Mariner look, who asked in the Spanglish I spoke, if I’d like to go inside. I assessed the situation…a stranger comes along, offers to take me into the belly of the world’s largest pyramid, has no ID except having the keys to the lock and knowing where the light switch is. Fortunately, again out of nowhere, came a Mexican family that wanted to see the mysteries inside as well. We paid the fare to our Charon, who would now ferry us from our sunlit world into the faint, shadowy, neon-lit, pointed-arch netherworld deep within.  Charon and the Mexican family walked briskly, trading insights in Spanish about, I assumed, about how the excavation was being done. I lagged, looking right and left at excavated rooms, likely burial chambers and at stairways to other levels, but never letting my companions out of sight in case one passageway branched into another and I was left guessing which to take.

On we walked, deeper into the darkness, my thoughts, not surprisingly, turned to the reliability of the dim neon lights set in the pointed arches above…for we were many years away from the iPhone age with built-in flashlights. I prayed for the well-being of the Ancient Mariner, that he would live to lead us out. I prayed also for a point of light at the end of this, or any, passageway, leading to the outside. One loses track of time on the inside…was it still light outside? I said to myself that two hours inside the belly of the pyramid was enough to last me a few lifetimes. The hoped-for light suddenly did appear in the distance. Charon had brought us back from the other side. With escape near, I was then able to enjoy the confinement, the pointed arches, the narrow passageway, the trapped-forever feeling. But even better I would have opportunities to do seriously foolish things again.

Meantime, back to history…Cortes did come to Cholula on his march to conquer the Aztecs whose capitol was near present-day Mexico City. Wanting to replace the local religions with Christianity, he set about destroying many religious sites in the town, replacing some with churches. And then, topping off his ambitions, he destroyed the temple on top of the pyramid and built a cathedral in its place, not realizing that his cathedral was supported by the religious and cultural heritage he sought to destroy.

The sunlight was welcome. Still nothing seemed to move. The quiet was still eerie. Popocatepetl (Mexico’s second highest volcano) loomed not too far away. Climbing that would have to wait for another day.

3 March 2020

There are strange things,  unimaginable things, seemingly impossible things beyond explanation…things that seem supernatural…like the illusions a mentalist conjures. But a mentalist is a magician and his illusions are tricks, practiced and refined and then repeated again and again…tricks that can be learned by others adept at the darkish arts…to dazzle and amaze.

A coincidence, however, can’t be replicated, can’t be predicted, can’t be created, though it, too, defies explanation. It’s a chance encounter that brings together two people with shared experience. I have had recent exposures to both. First the illusion, then the coincidence.

Roberta and I recently went to a magic show at a small, cramped, seen-better-days theater in Greenwich Village. The emcee, also a magician, came out and did a few illusions to draw us into the “how’d he do that?” world of magic and right away I said, I know him. Not that I have acquaintances in the prestidigitation community, but I recognized him as the strolling magician at my grandson’s bar mitzvah party. After the show, he and I talked and, indeed, it was he (a small coincidence in itself, since he only appears once a month at the magic show…the night we were there).

In any case he introduced the mentalist, who invited two women in the audience to the stage…had then stand ten feet apart, eyes facing the audience…and then had each extend an arm toward the audience and keep the other arm at their sides. He had one of them hold a bell in her extended hand and went about his patter. At one point he nudged the extended arm of the non-bell woman. The bell held by the other woman rang immediately. Another nudge, another ring…no wires, no visual or audio communication. Mental telepathy? I don’t know, but the bell rang.

The coincidence, as coincidences go, was even stranger. We recently went to California and met friends of Roberta. At one point in the innocent talk of strangers, getting to know each other (her friends and I had never met), we talked of travel. I recounted a trip four years before, when I went to eastern edge of Slovakia, near Ukraine to find the town where my grandfather was born and departed from at 14 years old to find his way to America. The wife intrigued, said her bother-in-law did the same thing two years before…oddly in Slovakia, a land of wooden churches and non-existent road signs, where most don’t venture.

Kidding, I said, you’re not going to tell me the town was Medzilaborce. She reflexively put her hand over her mouth to stifle an “oh, my God, that’s the town.” Medzilaborce is a town without a drawing card, although it has a large, quite beautiful Eastern Orthodox church. But it is offset by a few boxy Soviet-style apartment blocks, a few boxy Soviet-style municipal buildings, a railroad station, a police station, a rusted newsstand and a slum for the Roma and not much else. It is a few miles east of the equally drab towns of Svidnik and Stropkov. But oh, rose among the thorns, it has an Andy Warhol modern art museum, a paean to his mother, who was born not far from Medzilaborce. It is a place to visit to show you where you don’t want to live.

But there is no better way to become acquainted with strangers than sharing an experience few others can relate to.

18 February 2020

Hummus in the Suq…almost sounds like an Agatha Christie novel that begins with an unexpected cloud of suspicion, descending on all the passengers in a first-class mahogany compartment on the Orient Express.

But, nope, this hummus in the suq is a restaurant in the Arab suq (market) in Akko, Israel, where mahogany-posh and silver-tray elegance would be as likely as a French chateau in Secaucus. Hummus Said (pronounced Sah-eed) is a high-ceilinged gray place with naked neon lights and a grayish, indifferent wait-staff born of too many years staring into plates of hummus and hoping to see something a little more exotic that a taupe-colored mass of pureed chickpeas with an eye of olive oil staring back.

We asked to see a menu. As if we were interrupting some seminal nuclear research he was doing in his head, the waiter answered with a bored exasperation in accented English, thick as the hummus he was serving. “We got no menu. We got plain hummus. We got hummus with whole chickpeas. We got hummus with ground lamb. Which you like?” You’ve got no falafel, I asked. “We got hummus.” Talk about a menu long on simplicity and short on choice, this was it. But, hey, if hummus is your strong suit, why play baba ganoush. What your customers expect, that’s what you give them. Besides, the kitchen was too cramped with vats of  chickpeas cooking and mixers to mash them for any increase in entrees. Without consultation we chose plain hummus which came with a pile of pita which was also unequalled and a generous plate of olives, tomatoes, onions, pickles, red peppers, green peppers. “The best hummus in Israel”, they say and with one dip of pita in hummus, I was convinced.

There are restaurants everywhere that claim to be “the best”. But it shouldn’t be a license to do without grace or apology, when they put down a plate with a bounce on synthetic marble-topped tables with the indifference of tossing a live lobster in boiling water. Hey, where does it say great service. You’re here, the hummus is great…so why complain. You want the best hummus in Israel…you come here. It’s not chic, especially when little separates the kitchen from the diners and the sweaty charms of the cooking staff with their perspired, napkin-wrapped foreheads…all part of the ambience.

The same thing happens everywhere. When the Stage and the Carnegie delis touted their pastrami and corned beef, immodestly, as the best in New York, the waiters knew that being pleasant was a waste of time. The tables were filled anyway.  So what if they bounced the plates of cole slaw and pickles. They were free, so who’s going to complain? It was just New York waiters being New York waiters…part of the story you could tell, when you got back home.

But a word to the wise. Things change. A so-so review in the Times, a raise in the rent, the creeping spectre of vegetarianism and iconic New York delis could and did find their way into the history books. So be careful Hummus Said, you wouldn’t be the first “best of” to be recorded  as “remember them?”

In Israel

5 July 2019

We were in Radauti (pronounced Radautz), Romania a couple of years ago, where my grandmother was born. For me it was closing the circle, started three years before, when I found the town where my grandfather was born…Medzilaborce, in Slovakia (formerly Czechoslovakia and before that Austria-Hungary). And so, Roberta and I found ourselves in Romania (near Ukraine) in an area called Bukovina…a land of painted monasteries and shuttered synagogues. My grandmother, whose family was nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, had come to America in 1900 for reasons unknown, since life in Radauti seemed to be less threatening than in other areas of central or eastern Europe. But life obviously deteriorated and by the end of WWII, most of the Jews in the region had become victims of the Holocaust or had emigrated.

Searching through pictures on the Internet, I had stumbled on a picture of a memorial in a cemetery to the Jews of Radauti on which names of some of those lost were inscribed. It seemed to us that it would be in Radauti. But no, we found, after the trip that the memorial is in Israel in a cemetery in Holon, south of Tel Aviv. Some Radauti Jews left for Palestine in the early decades of the 1900s and built a memorial to the ones who didn’t leave. It seems only right to acknowledge people who were the victims of savagery, more poignantly since there is a family connection to many of them. And so we turned through an entrance in a nondescript stone wall, blinking into a noontime, sun-scorched hillside of above-ground graves…areas separated by the narrowest of lanes for cars to maneuver…not a place to take a rented car, but we did. It is the largest cemetery in Israel, so it’s not to be trifled with on foot with temperature in the mid-nineties.

Of course, there was no one at the small entrance building to give us an idea where the memorial might be, so, Lewis and Clark-lite, we set out to find it ourselves. We were armed with a picture in memory of what it looked like…how hard could it be. After the better part of an hour, nearly skinning the paint off the car on gravesites that defined the edge of the road, we admitted defeat and sullenly found our way to the entrance/exit. But now we saw two people there, one with a hardened face of a pirate, the other a youngish ultra orthodox, who had shed his coat, but not his hat and looked the worse for the heat. The pirate, who earlier had motioned us away from a place where we idled the car, came over now offering help…but in Hebrew. English he understood only a few words, but they, luckily, were the ones needed to tell him what we were looking for. He in turn translated to the Haredi, who made a couple of calls on his cell phone and then motioned us to follow him.

So here was an ultra orthodox twenty-something presumably there to help lost visitors. Nearby was a modern electric bike, lying on the sidewalk that turned out to be his…the embrace of modernity by one whose community questions things extensively to make sure there is no biblical trespass. In this case our cemetery guide (who volunteered enthusiastically to help) had an unusual Haredi look…undershirt fringe and peyot, trailing in the breeze behind him, hand on hat, so it wouldn’t blow off…in pursuit of the elusive memorial. Even more dissonant, the bike’s motor stopped working a few times and he got off, smacked it…a true technocrat…and got it going again. I’m not sure why it worked, but it did. The Lord’s ways are indeed mysterious.

The whereabouts of the memorial still eluded him, even with the calls. So he stopped at a caretaker’s shed and in 10 minutes emerged armed with new directions and took us to a memorial that looked like the right one, but wasn’t. Some things aren’t meant to be. So I thanked him and watched as he flew off, pleased I’m sure for the breeze in his face. But two memorials from the wrong one we found the right one. We stayed for a few minutes to bask in victory and  to be respectful. We took pictures and finally succumbed to Mideast heat and sought water and a breezy beach in Tel Aviv.

So What Did You Like Best?

24 June 2019

So what did you like best? What was your favorite thing? Did anything stand out? Questions people ask after a trip. For me there is something about picking favorites that diminishes the other things, or, at least, puts them in the background. But the questions do force us to recall and keep highlights in mind longer. What’s the sense, if two weeks later the trip becomes a blur, a cross-off on your bucket list.

My daughters did ask, naturally, how I liked a recent trip to Israel (my first, Roberta’s eighth). I hadn’t really thought about an artful reply at the time they asked, since I was dealing with jet lag, getting reacquainted with home turf and traffic and having left a place with a healthy, daily ration of yogurt, hummus, olives, salads and water by the gallon. (It was five days of nearly 100 degrees in Jerusalem, more than that at Masada and a disqualifying 112 degrees at the Dead Sea. The pleasures of floating there, buoyed by salt, loses its appeal, when it’s nearly as hot as an exhaust pipe.) So my inartful reply to the question was “interesting”. It was a bland response…and it deflated both daughters, who thought I didn’t like it. “Interesting” is one of those words, when applied to a date, means you’ll never see her again.

Not so…I really did like it, but couldn’t put my thoughts together quickly, like a kid just back from Disneyland can. But I was bothered about the likelihood of forgetting…and wanted to remember it well. I went over each day and found I really did like it (despite the usual goose chases on every trip, since I don’t plan extensively.) But then I had to retrace each day to find one favorite thing, the most intriguing thing. Hopefully, I would find such a standout thing. And, oddly, one thing did arise, but not one the rabbis would have expected from an Abrahamic descendant (in the Isaac and Jacob branch of family ancestors).

Roberta’s son, who lived in Israel for a few years, had an Israeli friend who, at one time, was a tour guide…a luxury I have never allowed myself. But he, spinning from a storehouse of historical thread, as if he had been there himself, took us on a magical walk through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, from the catacombs to the roof, through rotundas and Greek, Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian chapels, along the last few stations of the Via Dolorosa, ending at Calvary, near the Stone of the Anointing and the tomb where Jesus was buried. (There was no church, obviously, when the Crucifixion occurred. It was built 300 years later and now its domes, transept and nave enclose this relatively small area of crucifixion, anointing and burial.) Something did happen there, although the dates, the exact places might be a bit off. But it is history. The facts can’t be certified, but faith in the biblical account is real. To the  tourists,  pilgrims,  church groups the fulfillment of  just being there is real. People sobbing, foreheads pressed against the Stone of Anointing…that is real. You might not believe everything, but this is the core from which the Christian faith radiated to the rest of the world. And the rest of the world has been mightily affected by it. It’s hard to stand there and not feel the stones move.

There was a bit of humor stitched into the pathos of that fateful place. We were shepherded by our guide up a steep stairway, under an arch near the entrance of the church to a small, but ornate, domed chapel. There, with arms linked in a circle, was a visiting church group, swaying, eyes closed, in the exhilaration of being in such a place. And they were singing, believe it or not, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. For that moment ecumenism was alive and well in the walled confines of Jerusalem’s Old City…in one of the most Christian places on Earth, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre…although in such a place, I doubt too many others enjoyed the irony.

It’s an Acquired Taste for Some…For Others, Nirvana

11 June 2019

The Russians showed up midmorning at the Arab market in Tel Aviv. We and they converged at the same halva stand at the same time…the halva not yet sweaty from Tel Aviv’s heat and humidity, as it would have been by the middle of the day. The older of the two Russians, head-shaved, a dead ringer for Mr. Clean, was there with a younger friend. They both knew halva. One asked for a sample of the pistachio halva, not sweet, no sugar. “No, no, no…not sweet.” He shook his head for emphasis. The vendor gave him a small taste. “Not bad”, he said to us, but he clearly was not transported by it. He aimed an explicit “take my word for it” look in our direction..schooling us neophytes, as he could tell we were…the hoi polloi, who probably wouldn’t know burgundy from sangria, lemonade from champagne.

Make sure you don’t get too sweet. He corrugated his forehead in distress at the mention of chocolate or mocha or other “inauthentic” flavors for that matter. He asked the price of a kilo. He and his friend wandered off, aware that you never buy the first house you see or the first halva you come across at the market.

We came upon them a few minutes later and a few stalls down the market at another halva stand, more substantial, with not a tinhorn hawker of halva, as at the first stand, but with a proprietor conversant in halva, displaying more substantial blocks of halva and more different kinds. But the pistachio slab was the one that had been cut into more than the others. Mr. Clean acknowledged us, thinking we must be attaching ourselves to them as the acolytes we were, conceding their expertise in halva. Since it was my first encounter with it, I was grateful.

Again, one asked for a sample of pistachio, evidently the standard for judging all halva. The proprietor sliced bigger samples for each of them. The Russians lit up, they had breached halva nirvana. They nearly collapsed in ecstasy. I could only think how constricted their lives must have been, if it was halva that sent them into ecstasy. One pursed his lips in a smile and nodded to us that this was the good stuff. He asked the price, finagled a bit in English (this was an Arab market, so there was a little bit built into the price to make a bargain). Satisfied, he had the Pasha of Halva cut a half-kilo slab…pistachio only…and had it adorned with a few different types of baklava. He and his companion parted, quick-footing it off to a halva debauch on Aeroflot, winging it back to the Federation that afternoon. His parting goodwill gesture was to ask the proprietor to extend the same price he had negotiated to us halva hayseeds. We, too, not wanting to appear anything less than connoisseurs, we had him slice a half-kilo of the same good stuff that would be on the wing to Moscow.

Russian-American relations reached a post-Soviet high-water mark that morning. Agreeing has to start someplace. Da?

Also Known as the Huckleberry Lady

7 May 2019

The huckleberry lady, bough-bent and weary, walked carefully on well-used feet…a mysterious woman, who must have seen and done things well beyond our tidy experiences. She hobbled slowly up the driveway, up to the house overlooking the lake, a gypsy, perhaps, hidden under a babushka and shawl and a long peasant skirt, a woman who knew intimately fields somewhere in the world…from kneeling on them and working on them. She, no doubt, did more labor from wherever she came than we’d ever know…until, of course, she came to America for an easier life. Wherever it was, there was likely a horse-drawn wagon and harvesting potatoes and onions on her knees, picking and hoisting full burlap sacks of them onto the wagon. But in this late afternoon of my youth, she stooped under the weight of two buckets of huckleberries balanced on a crossbar over her shoulders. And during huckleberry season she showed up three times a week…a walking one-commodity market…picking berries in the morning until the buckets were full, then lugging the day’s harvest like a Sherpa around the lake, up long driveways…one blue-stained hand on a tree branch fashioned into a walking stick and the other on the crossbar, holding her cargo in place.

She’d suddenly materialize in the afternoon and knock softly on the screen door, oddly, as if she didn’t want to disturb anyone. Then, using hand gestures instead of language, she’d push a basket forward with a questioning look, instead of asking, “you want huckleberries?” And sometimes even more embarrassed, she’d come upon us already at dinner outside…a slight bow of forgiveness and a slight smile hidden mostly by the babushka. Business would have to be conducted during dinner, but it would be conducted, because summer was not summer without the berries. My aunt held up four fingers and the huckleberry lady tipped four cups of berries, enough for two pies, into a bowl set aside for her visits. Money was exchanged quietly as well, an amount agreed on during her first visit of the summer season, although always a little more given than asked…not noblesse oblige…but to make up for her discomfort at asking a fair price for herself. Then two slight bows of thank you and she was gone. In silence she came and in silence was gone…a wraith cowled like the Grim Reaper. A second later we’d look after her, but, like a figment of imagination, she was gone. But she was gone briefly. Two or three days later, the babushka would reappear. At some point, though, she did vanish like shadows into night. And that year a sentence in the book of any who remembered her…all those who knew the huckleberry lady…came to an end.

In a sense she was never gone, because all these years later, questions about her still linger…always wondering who she was and where she came from…a stranger dropped off at a lake in Pennsylvania. It is something that will have to remain a mystery, but also a pleasant memory.

The Idyll of Eighth Grade Afternoons

4 April 2019
The asphalt beneath my feet felt strangely reminiscent of the decades-gone, after-school basketball games we played in 8th grade on a friend’s driveway court…a court that had a slight downward slope toward the basket, so driving for a layup meant having enough control to shoot and stop before running or stumbling into the unforgiving heft of his garage door. Most of us opted to shoot from the outside to avoid swooping in for an easy basket and hoping to brake in time to stay clear of the door.

That reminiscence limped back to mind (yes, I had some scrapes with that garage door), triggered by my grandson who wanted to shoot some baskets on his driveway backboard, before going to baseball practice. The pleasure of past afternoon idylls rose to the top of memory…in spite of missed shots, turned ankles and the run-ins with the door. I was curious to see, if any of those past pleasures could be resurrected. Besides no one wants to think that skills are gone and he can’t light up the court again. Memory’s a wonderful motivator.

Of course, the muscle memory that allows you to improve one day to the next had relaxed its sway over improving my skills, since I had taken a hiatus of decades between basketball appearances. Among other things, it’s easy to forget how big a basketball is…and how small the rim. And the rim from my verticality seemed extraordinarily high. The clouds were never my basketball playground. Well below the rim was where I worked. But with a few shots…adjusting the angle of incidence, the angle of reflection and generating enough propulsion, I was certain to be back in the zone again.

Well, a few practice shots turned into a few dozen, but like recalibrating high-arching mortar rounds, shots began hitting the rim, then some bounced around the rim and then some fell in. Self-satisfaction, that old feeling, began to return…I can still play this game. My grandson, all of ten, who had been draining two, three, four outside shots in a row, began to take notice. The long-ago idyll of driveway basketball began to have a sultry hold on me again. Suddenly the basket seemed within reach, not that I could touch the rim or even the net without a ladder…but it wasn’t as daunting.

But then the myth of Icarus, flying too close to the sun, showed once again, that a quick fall from the heights of hubris teaches us never to forget humility. An errant short shot bounced past the backboard. I retrieved it and threw it to my grandson. Walking back to the court, a label on the adjustable upright, holding the backboard caught my eye. It showed the height of the rim…ten feet I was sure…normal height. Except the indicator bar, sadly, told a different tale…nine feet. I was praising my quick return to form a bit prematurely.

As an aunt of mine once said…self-praise is no praise. We shouldn’t be too quick to put on a swagger.

Congregants in the Pews of a Schvitz*

21 February 2019

I sit in a sauna, focused on enduring the steam, but panting like a husky would in the noontime sun of the Amazon. I’m in the midst of this ordeal in a Turkish/Russian communal bath with its choking heat, gazing sadly at old-timers’ bodies of fallow flesh…that have been tended to…but not too well…naked, sweaty, some sumo-large that terry towels of spacious size can’t cover well. (Truth, though, younger schvitzers are proudly in shape.)

It’s supposed to be healthful, this cleansing that feels far better when you’re out of it than when you’re in it…a rack of far more torment than reciting over and over confessional prayers. For make no mistake, though absent a cleric, the steam room bench (without the confessional’s anonymity) will focus the mind on all your sins, so you can quicker atone and escape the self-imposed hell of the schvitz.

The heat embraces you and the oxymoron…the pleasure of pain…becomes weirdly apt, even moreso when offered with the option of flagellation, should you want to be scoured with a broom of oak leaf branches to expand a bit more the exquisite discomfort of this resurrection of the soul. The schvitz, a miracle of purification, comes with a touching connection to the past thousands of tucheses that sat where you sit, who suffered in this purgatory of perspiration, trying to catch a breath, convinced that survival…you should be so lucky…will somehow make your life sweeter, your burdens lighter, your psyche as perfect as surgical steel.

Like it’s not hot enough, some imposing mound of muscled flesh with the menacing smirk of a torturer, who, you’re convinced. can’t be gently reasoned with, ladles more water on the hot rocks, creating an even more stifling sizzle of steam…like it wasn’t already hot enough. And, self-satisfied, I can hear the echo of his laughter, reverberating down the tunnels of time, happily showing how much more macho he is than the rest of us.

I sit until I can’t anymore. My pores, however much cleansed, will have to be satisfied. My lungs will thank me. The pucker of my reddened skin will turn normally smooth as it was before. And I, having suffered, will reward myself at a nearby Polish restaurant with a bowl of borscht and a plate of blintzes, the thought of which does make the schvitz endurable. From pain to pleasure and isn’t that what it’s all about.

* A schvitz is a steam room…to schvitz is to sweat.