The Book of Daniel
I could never have appreciated how obscure we were. A poor family in the Bronx, too hot in the summer, and too cold in the winter. I thought we were big time. I thought we were important people. I thought the world really revolved around my family. We had this way of understanding everything. There was nothing my father could not explain. And even if it was bad, we always knew what was happening. It was a terrible strain, but I began to understand that it was worth it. We had no modesty, any of us. We were fierce in our self-importance. We were really important to ourselves. Our lives were important and what happened to us was important. The day’s small plans and obligations engrossed us. Going to school. To work. Shopping. To the meetings at night, to the recurrent meetings. It was all terribly important. And so when they were taken away, one after the other, and I next saw them on television or a moment of their faces in the newspaper, it was like the world had finally agreed to what I always knew—that we were important people. Recognition was just. It was more than just, it was unsurprising.
But where we lived always seemed to me the essence of obscurity. In the Bronx connected apartment houses fill each city block. Six or seven stories high they line the streets mile after mile. Kids grow up around doorways, on stoops, in court yards And in the dark lobbies with their tile floors, and maybe a brass elevator door and a fake old English chair. One block after another. Miles of apartment houses with their halls of cooking smells and their armament of garbage cans at the curb. From the prominence of our little wooden house on Weeks Avenue I could see around the amphitheatrical schoolyard ranks of apartment houses. Beyond my sight I knew there were more Bronx hills, more apartment houses interspersed every fifteen or twenty blocks with a purple castle of a school just like mine. It was a kind of comfort. Because our vulnerability in this unusual rotting wooden house on the precipice of this schoolyard street was not so great then. We were different enough not to suffer the obscurity of Bronx architecture. But surrounded by it, we were protected from worse things—storms, fireballs, the marches of ants, floods from the sky—nothing in this part of the world being worth such energy, such destruction. I had it all worked out. The people of the Bronx were beaten. So why bother to destroy them. So why bother with us who lived among them, telltale crimsoning life in our cheeks and life in our eyes. My mother lighted the façades of these houses with her personality. As we walked past them, they were lit in her revulsion. Clutching my hand and pushing the carriage, hurrying up past the stacked tombs of those houses whose sight she bore in hatred and in fear—as if by not walking fast enough we would be contaminated by the life inside them. Rochelle had a profound distaste for the common man. Her life was a matter of taking pains to distinguish herself from her neighbors. Maybe that’s why we lived where we did. Who chooses the home, the wife or the husband? We faced no apartment house but only the sky over the schoolyard. The only neighbors were to either side of us and so it was a half-populated street to begin with, and with half-neighbors who faced the same way and at whom we did not have to look. I knew a few of them. My parents were known to all and friends to none. Maybe it was partly the shame of Grandma spinning out of there at odd moments of the day or night, with her wild hair and Yiddish curses, but I doubt it. The public spectacle did not bother Paul that much, I remember him laughing one time as Grandma went by the store on 174th Street and shook her fist at him as she walked past the window. And there was a customer in there, too. Besides, in those days, just after the war, people were still familiar with untranquilized misery. There were more freaks on the streets than you see today. I remember one guy named Iggy who was a macrocephalic and staggered along with the kids following him, staggered along smiling under the weight of his head. He was reputed to be a mathematical genius and nobody knew his age. He was said to be older than he looked.
The fact was Paul and Rochelle did not choose their friends. The fact was Paul and Rochelle did not choose their friends by accident. People did not become friends simply because they were neighbors. My parents associated only with interesting people. That was her phrase. Respect was to say of someone that he was an interesting person. The dentist was interesting. The furrier. The subway change clerk. The fiddler. The teacher. The welfare worker. These people were interesting. They were not doomed by their shabby apartment buildings. They were not imprisoned by their miserable wages. They were not conditioned to accept slavery. Their minds were free, They had ideas. They met and discussed and contributed money to a dream future. Together like a flock of soft-throated birds they were beautiful to one another, strutting around each other, displaying the plumage of their species, trilling out the key word-cries of this very articulate race of birds that were like the ritual wisdom of their ancestors. They kept each other warm.
Oh yes, Lawd, Oh yes, complacent lawd.
Let’s see, what other David Copperfield kind of crap.
So the Trustees of Ohio State were right in 1956 when they canned the English instructor for assigning Catcher in the Rye to his freshman class. They knew there is no qualitative difference between the kid who thinks it’s funny to fart in chapel, and Che Guevara. They knew then Holden Caulfield would found SDS.
I was born in Washington, D.C., but I remember no home before Weeks Avenue in the Bronx. We moved there in 1945 when I was four years old. Or maybe in 1944 when I was five years old. Of the war I remember some tin cans flattened for a “scrap drive.” The idea that bacon fat could be turned into bullets. An old man in a white helmet who was an air-raid warden. Seabees. I remember thick arrows with curving shanks stamped on maps in the newspapers and magazines. I remember the Four Freedoms. I remember what ration stamps looked like, and the stickers A, B or C on the windows of automobiles. I remember in Seventy-Six the Sky Was Red, The Bombs Were Bursting Overhead, and Old King George Couldn’t Sleep in His Bed, and on That Stormy Morn—Old Uncle Sam Was Born. I remember President Roosevelt riding up the Grand Concourse in an open car without a hat although the day was chill, and that he looked right at me in the crowd and we waved at each other. I remember the Red Army Chorus singing Meadowland, a virile hypnotic song simulating the canter of horses. I remember studying the picture of the Red Army Chorus on the 78-rpm album, the smiling, deep-throated soldiers of a valiant ally. I remember the horses coming out of the distance bolder and bolder in a rising crescendo of militant brotherhood, storming my heart with their cantering nobility. I remember standing on the porch of our house on Weeks Avenue. It was a warm afternoon and I had scraped my knee on the sidewalk. My mother came out to tell me that an atom bomb had been dropped on Japan, I looked up in the sky over the schoolyard, but the sky was clear. I listened for the sound of the bomb, but the sky was quiet.