This piece belongs to a series called The Harry Stories. There are seven of them. Taken together, they don’t quite make up a book. They’re more of a longish ramble. For convenience, their titles are numbered.
My grandmother, Ciel (pronounced “seal”) — not from Cecilia, but rather the closest English approximation of her Yiddish name, Zissele (and known from some reason to her grandchildren as Nanny) — ate five breakfasts. You would think that someone who ate five breakfasts was fat, but she was not. She made it to 95, healthy as a horse until the last year or two, outliving Harry by 15 years. When she was in her 70s, I was in my father’s basement, listening to the sound of her heels on the floor in the hallway above. Unobservant as I was, like any teenager, even then I remarked on how her steps sounded like those of a much younger woman, clacking authoritatively down the hall like that. She was insomniac and therefore up at 4:30 every morning.
Breakfast #1: She would make herself a cup of coffee into which she put a splash milk and drank standing up at the stove.
Breakfast #2: When Harry came down shaved and dressed at 6, she would have his coffee and doughnut ready for him at the table and, still standing, serve herself a second cup with a piece of matzo that she broke off from a sheet in the box.
Breakfast #3: When any other relatives came down, always much later, like 9 or 9:30, she would begin the daylong rite of pushing food on them. “An egg?” she would query. “I could make an omelet, or maybe you’d like some fruit,” she would continue, until whoever it was broke down and accepted something. This was not a problem for the boys, but my mother, who had territorial issues with her mother-in-law, had a harder time with it. Somewhere in there, Ciel would grab something, a piece of fruit, when no one was looking.
Breakfast #4: At 10:30, Ciel would help herself to something more substantial, often a half bagel.
Breakfast #5: And at 11:30, she would move into a cross between breakfast and lunch, a couple of pieces of pickled herring eaten out of the jar with a fork while talking.
My grandmother’s refrigerator was like a reincarnation of the Hanukkah oil. Where there had been only one day’s oil, eight were somehow magically eked out. Ciel would say, “I have nothing in the house.” And the refrigerator even looked sort of empty. But somehow things kept emerging from it until the dining room table groaned under their weight. And all the while, my grandmother stood and ate practically nothing, “A little nosh,” she would say, popping a grape into her mouth. Passing the pickle dish around, she would say, “Have a pickle,” asking rhetorically, “Who couldn't love a pickle?”
She practically discovered organic food, buying food from a mail-order house, a tiny out-of-state farm called Walnut Acres. People thought she was crazy, but years later Walnut Acres grew into a huge conglomerate based on the organic craze of the late 20th century.
One day, my grandmother was telling us all about making dinner for some of Harry’s associates and their families. We had just come down from Massachusetts, and she was chirping away in her usual style, moving in and out of the dining room, bringing corned beef, tongue, pickles, potato salad, chopped herring (my older brother’s favorite), chopped liver (mine), radishes, celery, black bread, smoked white fish, smoked salmon, bagels, cream cheese, butter, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, milk for the kids, soda for the adults.
“They were so sweet,” she said, implying in her words all the ethnocentricity that assumed that Italian men were uncouth and uncivilized. “They were so nice to their grandchildren,” she said, as if she were surprised that they didn't eat their grandchildren. And she went on and on like that for a long time, commenting on their manners and small graces, until Harry had heard enough.
He touched his mouth with his napkin and set it down in front of him, and with that gesture that I later recognized from the Godfather movie, appeared to throw imaginary salt over his shoulder in a dismissive rather than superstitious way, saying as he did so, “Yeah, these are the guys who do the rough work,” just in case the grandchildren got any misimpression about the real nature and profession of these individuals. Without further comment, he resumed eating. If I had to guess I would say that his guests had probably been at what could be termed in Godfather nomenclature the “Clemenza” level of the organization, made members of some standing but still mostly taking rather than giving orders.
Harry never talked much about his views of World War II and what had happened to the Jews in Europe, but given his cynicism about the likelihood that God had simply abandoned us here on earth and walked away to find something better to do, you can be sure that he wasn't surprised at everyone’s behavior and the final the outcome. However, he harbored a lasting hatred, which surfaced in rare moments, of Germany and all things German. Good thing he didn't live to see me shack up with an Austrian girl, a Tyrolean, no less, whose grandfather had been an actual Nazi.
Thus, I shouldn't have been too surprised when, in my teenage vagabond years, I turned up in a VW bus at wit’s and pocketbook’s end at their house in Maplewood, New Jersey, and received less than a hero’s welcome. The VW bus was a classic hippy van with built in bed platform, double mattress, shelves, and cubbies. I had been out West, sowing wild oats and growing my hair. I had patchy jeans, motorcycle boots, and a woodsman’s shirt, and I needed gas money to make it the rest of the way to Massachusetts.
My grandfather came out to the driveway and, ever the economist, summed up his reaction in a single phrase: “You gotta have syphilis to drive a car like that!” covering, in one shot, both the likely state of my venereal health and my degenerate international industrial affiliation.
A no-nonsense guy. Aside from his annual driving trips to Mexico in the Cadillac with my grandmother, he only ever had two what could be called hobbies: birds and golf. In his bird phase, he conceived, designed, and constructed elaborate bird feeders that were meant to feed the birds but discourage the squirrels. Each feeder was more convoluted than the last. But none of them ever prevented the enterprising squirrels from raiding the feed designated for the birds’ exclusive use.
Golf he played in his later years with a passion that eluded the rest of us, particularly my father, entirely. He gave my father, who was far richer than my grandfather by then, a set of the finest golf clubs, clubs he sorely wanted himself. My father put them in a closest without a thought and never looked at them again until he sold them during his second divorce.
The Italians lived in West Orange then, the ones who had made it, and they played golf at the West Orange Golf Club, a private, members-only outfit. About five years before he died, Harry was invited to join, the first Jew ever. But there was a condition. He could not play as himself, that is, under his own name. He was issued an ID card with his picture on it and the name Nicky Pinto. I saw this card with my own eyes. I would never have believed it otherwise.
There was the club’s logo and Harry’s picture. And Nicky Pinto printed right beside it. Not Nicholas J. Pinto, but the diminutive. Nicky. Who knows where this name came from? When Harry showed me the card with a small sideways smirk, I was surprised. But not entirely shocked. The idea that the Jews couldn't play as themselves seemed natural to me. All the best Jews had changed their names or had lucky blue eyes or straight hair, maybe even blond. Paul Newman. Tony Curtis. Eddie Cantor. Al Jolsen. Danny Kaye. Bob Dylan. Harrison Ford. Richard Gere. The Sulzbergers owned the New York Times, but they hired a WASP front office. For looks.
Years later, long after Harry was dead and my grandmother had sold the house, and most of the things in it had been sold, given away, and thrown out, I found, during a visit to the old folks’ home where she was stored, that she had kept his old desk, the small one from the living room with the leather top, the one behind which we used to have our man-to-man talks. On a whim, I opened the lowest drawer, the one where he kept the unopened decks of cards. Right there in the front of the drawer was a pack of ID cards, all Harry’s, held together with a green rubber band. I thought, the Nicky Pinto card! Instantly, I leafed through the deck. But, no. It was gone. There were ID cards from every phase of his life, driver’s licenses, parking passes, one proclaiming him the Sold Waste Council. But no Nicky Pinto.
Dang! I felt that, with all the factlets of his life disappearing, laughing at me as they morphed from one thing into another, with all the myths and half-truths darting here and there behind his now-vanished half-smile, finding that card would have been the one solid piece of evidence that any of it had actually happened.
For a long time, I wished only for one thing, and that was to pass through this life unnoticed, to hurt nothing and help nothing. Simply to observe, to witness, was enough for me. Like a snail crossing the sand, to leave only my trail, transient, washed away with the next wave. That was my sole desire. But later, after having a family and observing life more closely and at greater length, I realized that true neutrality was impossible. I would have to leave a mark of some sort no matter what.
But inasmuch as it was possible, Harry left no mark. Through silence and obfuscation, camouflage and subterfuge, he managed to slip through with nary a trace. I’m pretty sure he wanted it that way.
Did the Nicky Pinto ID ever really exist? I saw it with my own eyes.