“MOSHE FRANKEL DIED.”
“You know, the Frankels.”
The Frankels. Of course. I mean, well, not of course. I have no idea who they are, individually. But as a family, as mythology, they were our patron saints. Well, of course not saints. We don’t believe in those, per se. But they’re the family who took my father in, when he came over on the boat. That’s what we always said, came over on the boat. Age, unknown. We know my father left Vienna on the Kindertransport when he was fourteen. We know he spent some unhappy time in Manchester, England. We have the copy of the letter my grandfather—his father—had sent him, the last letter from him that my father ever received. We think. Nobody knows for sure. We know the Lubavitch yeshiva offered my father an opportunity to come to the U.S. The details are vague. Maybe it was the yeshiva, maybe it was some relative. All fuzzy. We know my father arrived, he stayed with some evil uncle.
All our stories have that David Copperfield quality.
A digression: in my mother’s 8th grade yearbook she listed David Copperfield as her favorite book. There was no intentional irony that a Jewish child forced to come to the U.S. alone to escape an even worse fate if she stayed in the hellhole that had become Germany would list that anti-Semite’s book as her favorite. It’s a good book.
When my brother called to tell me Moshe Frankel, one of the many Frankel siblings exactly my father’s age, had died, it was understood: I would represent our family at the funeral. We do that. Funerals, weddings, brises. You show up. You stand up and are counted. You acknowledge the celebrants and mourners of Zion. Nobody goes unacknowledged to life or death. No way. We won.
As a woman I wouldn’t count towards the mourner’s minyan but my siblings were on pastel ice-cream family holidays with their young children, my parents were visiting my older brother and his numerous offspring in Israel, I was the best my family had at the moment. I was also young, single, and childless. In a place and time in my life that I considered “open to possibility” that others, mainly my mother, may have considered “lost”. I liked to think there was a certain symmetry to me being the one to wear my father’s mantle at a Frankel Family Funeral.
Abe Frankel took my father under his wing when they met at the yeshiva where my father was offered room and board and a chevre to learn with, in return for basic housekeeping/janitorial duties. A small matter, a minor mitzvah to those American Jews not in full grasp of the devastation taking place over there in Europe—who could be? For my father, a lifeline.
The Frankels were a large family. Again, fuzzy on the details but there were lots of them. Boys and girls. Some devout, some secular. Some achingly attractive and some far less so, almost, well, if you can’t say something nice, better to say nothing. But all with mouths full of perfect teeth, bodies plump and soft where they should be, smiles that were their faces’ normal resting position, and eyes that were bright with the light of never having seen arms lifted to shatter the windows of their homes before taking fathers away in the night. Theirs were American arms that swung baseball bats, not ones hidden behind doors clutching fathers’ German issued World War I bayonets—guns as tall as they were, and as incomprehensible as what lay beyond that door. Again, I digress.
The Frankels had my father at their home every Shabbos, and all the songs my father sang every Friday night and Shabbos lunch he’d learned at their Shabbos Tisch. When my grandmother survived, when my father, then a U.S. soldier, found her in Europe after the war, when he brought her to the U.S. on military transport and when he moved with her into a small apartment in the Bronx, far from the Brooklyn based Frankels, he limited his relationship with them. Out of respect for his jealous mother who couldn’t forgive them for taking care of her boy while she fought rats in dank cellars for scraps of moldy bread. I assume the Frankels understood, or accepted their portion of blame for their shameful comfort. As for Grandma, well, there were things Grandma, an avid talker with lots of unsolicited opinions, was obstinately silent about. The Frankels were one of those undiscussed topics.
Meanwhile my father and mother managed on their own to fashion a family that was loud, boisterous, happy, and you know, American too. My father had a model to follow. We just never told Grandma that.
I calculated the two hour drive from Connecticut to Brooklyn, but I miscalculated the heavy midweek morning traffic on I95, the Grand Central Parkway, the BQE, then the Prospect Park Expressway, which turned it into a longer than three hour eighteen-wheeler-escorted pothole-riddled-shitshow. Sweaty, tense, and suffering a sense of grey despair that had nothing to do with Moshe Frankel, I pulled up at the funeral home, or as close to it as I could get, weaving around the double-parked cars and commercial trucks lining Coney Island Ave. The gates at the front of the somber brick building were padlocked shut, the lights were off, no hearse and its attendant caravan lined the grid locked street.
I’d missed the entire funeral.
Another way to not fill my father’s shoes. It was almost 11:00 Am, I was nowhere in south Brooklyn, on an overcast August morning outside the Coney Island Ave. Shomrei Hadas Funeral Chapel. I’d been in the car for four hours. When the car behind me began honking its horn, and when that prompted the start of a longer and louder chorus, I pointed the car north, the only thing I could think of doing, the only place I could think of going. Nate was in some part of his residency at Downstate, the hospital where I’d been born. His schedule was erratic. He lived in Park Slope, the hoity toity neighbor- hood in what was becoming a hoity toity borough. An oxymoron in itself.
It had been Eli, Nate, Adam, and Joe. The inner cool circle of the maximally uncool guys. Smart, bookish, and nebbishy. Destined, no designed, for eventual greatness. Redeemers of their parents’ fates. They’d become doctors and lawyers, professionals formed from the ashes of their parents’ lost generation. They’d never ever be hungry. Or cold.
Needless to say, they’d never be mainstream. But they were funny. So funny. Bitter. Aggressively and painfully funny. How else to endure in a world they desperately wanted to fit into, but didn’t have the password for? The glasses, the softness, their mothers’ pride in their small pot bellies, they didn’t stand a chance.
But the books, the words, the math, the music. There they reigned.
They let me in, even though I was a girl, even though my parents weren’t Real Survivors, as if there was a ranked system (there was—unspoken). Both my parents were European born, but both fled as children, both barely had accents, if you don’t consider Brooklynese an accent— both had straight backs and teeth, neither of them had tattooed forearms. I was a child of lesser survivors. A bit vanilla to their scorched-earth black. Survivor-lite.
Nevertheless, despite my limitations, despite, or maybe because of, my vagina, they let me in. And despite my limitations, or maybe because of them, I clung to this misfit group of overachieving Grateful Dead following boys. Their guitar playing, songs by Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia, giving them slanted access to the wide-open purple mountain majesties of the American Frontier—direct from their Brooklyn basements and bedrooms, pungent with old-country smells and the accents of their bemused but grateful parents. The Grateful Not-Dead.
It was a little complicated. Eli and I had been a couple. Then we weren’t. Then he married someone else and made aliyah—ascent by way of permanent residence—to sun-parched sand-drenched Israel while I descended into the leafy abyss of Connecticut by way of a stellar career opportunity. Which tells you just about everything there is to say about me and Eli. His move made my enduring friendship with the rest of the boys simpler. And my Connecticut address and professional title only added to my pre- existing exoticism—my afore-mentioned femininity and Yiddish not being the primary language in my family’s home.
Nate’s studio apartment was on the edge of the edge of the gentrifying neighborhood, itself on the edge of tonier neighborhoods, thus multiple degrees of separation from New York City’s more vied-for addresses. But it wasn’t Borough Park. It wasn’t in the self-assigned Jewish Ghetto of his childhood. It was earth-shattering. His walls, literally, cracked open.
It was also painted a strange shade of bright yellow.
Nate was gallant, offering me some surprisingly decent coffee by way of a gleaming Mr. Coffee that had pride of place on his otherwise barren kitchen counter, a half-filled jar of peanut butter and day-old bagels. We sat on two metal folding chairs at a lopsided card table and I tried to entertain him with my morning’s trials and tribulations, but really, there wasn’t much to tell about driving forever to miss a funeral. And all that determined yellow after all that humid grey was making my head spin. Or maybe it was the general disappointment of whatever wasn’t making sense on that day. Or maybe it was that the milk in Nate’s fridge was well past spoiled, but when Nate suggested the city, we jumped up and headed to the subway and into Manhattan, for us, the Real New York.
We walked around the Village, all our regular Saturday night music haunts closed on a weekday afternoon. We ate falafel from a cart, and after walking up and down the narrow streets we landed in a shabby art house movie theater, showing that English Merchant Ivory classic: A Room With A View. Then a Mexican restaurant, abandoning any pretense of kashrut—or sobriety. As the second, then third frozen margarita iced my teeth and raced to my brain, I began to suspect that this could be a date. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I downed my drink. Then a woman shrieked, there was a flurry of activity, a medical emergency. “He’s a doctor,” I sprung into action pointing at Nate, giddy with the disturbance and the opportunity to redeem something. Define something. I wasn’t sure. Nate looked pained, much more than the woman, the root cause of this diversion I was embracing. But Nate was used to female authority, his mother had seen him through high school, college, and into medical school with that singular fierce contradiction of Holocaust survival clawing and gratitude familiar to all of us, and he pushed aside his drink to make his reluctant show of his commitment to the Hippocratic Oath. It was, he assured all of us, only a nose bleed. We left shortly afterwards, a new strained silence between us, well, on his part. I was still giddy with my assist at heroics.
“It’s not really like the movies, you know?” Nate said to the dirty floor of our subway car.
“What?” the margaritas still salsaing frenetically between my brows and hairline. “The whole doctor in the house thing. I was drinking. It could have been, it’s not like—it could’ve been a mess. Legally. A disaster.”
“Isn’t there a good Samaritan waiver or something? Aren’t you obligated to act? To perform?”
He shook his head, never looking up. His neck had crawled into the space between his shoulders, he looked like a comma. Trapped between clauses.
The margaritas stopped dancing. We came to his stop.
I slept with him. It was the least, or the most I could do, right?
Friday morning. Mumbling about work, the long drive, our words going past and around each other, never settling anywhere, not on ourselves, or on the furniture, what there was, just bouncing futilely off those desperate yellow walls. Finally, we let them drop. In the silence, Nate insisted on walking me down to my car, parked outside his apartment since the previous long-ago morning.
My car. My wheels, my magic carpet, where I was safe even in the darkest night, behind its locked doors, the music blaring, the world outside blurring by.
But I was standing in a pile of smashed glass. The gutter sparkled with it, reflect- ing the early morning sun. My car was desecrated, driver window gone, more glass—so much glass—strewn across the driver’s seat, a glistening path from the window to the violated dashboard where skinny red and green, yellow and blue wires dangled out of an open maw where the radio and cassette player, worn down by my caressing fingertips, had been.
I’d grown up on these, or similar streets. You gave your bicycle to whoever accosted you for it, there were always more of them than you. You ran home and cried. You saved up for a new one. You handed over your wallet, your watch, your jewelry if you were stupid enough to go out wearing any. You were relieved to be intact.
This was just a car radio. Almost a rite of passage. At least they’d left the car.
Then I saw the paper tucked under the windshield.
A non-moving violation. My car registration—still registered in New York, I never would or could get around to making Connecticut official—had expired the previous day. At midnight.
I came in for a funeral. Screwed that up. I slept with my ex’s best friend. NYC fucked me back.
I was still standing next to my car, Nate was still standing in front of his stoop. I’d need to get to a car shop and get the window fixed. I’d need to get to the DMV and deal with the registration. I’d need to use Nate’s phone.
But I didn’t sleep with Nate again. No. He dropped me off at Amy and Jonah’s. Amy was Nate’s sister. If they thought it strange that I was there, that Nate brought me to them, that I produced a plastic Duane Reed bag with a toothbrush, a comb, a 3-day pack of cotton panties in a cellophane wrapper, and another one with a cotton BVD T-shirt to wear with a funeral appropriate skirt, they didn’t say so, at least to me.
They welcomed the stranger. Maybe because it was an investment for when the favor needs to be returned. Maybe because it was an interesting story. Maybe because your older brother is your older brother and she’s his—who knows? Didn’t she go out with his best friend?
Or maybe because it was Friday night and they kept Shabbos and it’s what you’re supposed to do. The Shabbos candles in their tall silver holders cast shadows on the lavender and greens of their walls. The Shabbos wine—not Manischewitz but undoubtedly kosher—was smooth and rich. The challah was doughy and sweet.
I curled up on their soft couch and covered myself with their warm duvet. I wanted them to take care of me forever, while I switched between my three-day underwear pack.
I didn’t want Shabbos to end.
But I was a grown-up. So at sunset, when my Shabbos reprieve came to its inevitable close, I thanked my hosts, I thanked Nate for everything, and headed north in my too-quiet car.
On the long and very silent drive home I assessed. No way would I accept the insulting car registration non-moving violation issued the same night as my car’s non-consensual penetration. I’d wait impatiently for the designated court date, the paper work would be dutifully filed. I’d get my day and say. I was white, young, reasonably attractive and well educated. I’d dress professionally, mixing the correct degree of respect and conservatism for this encounter.
When the day finally arrived, I studied my map and this time I was on time for my evening of justice in New York City’s Traffic Night Court.
As my name was called, I made my way to the bench, prepared evidence envelope in hand. My case would force the somnolent person posing as judge to some degree of his former self, the one who had once been called to the bench to administer justice and right wrongs with the wisdom of a Solomon, but who had, inevitably and predictably, had the will kicked out of him with the endless parade of traffic violations that probably haunted his sleep while he counted down the days to his retirement. I would restore his faith, or at least make this night different from all others. I was mighty with righteous indignation. Where were New York City’s finest when my car was broken into? Where was all that diligence and vigilance, the one paid to the teeny little sticker in the bottom right corner of my license plate when the marauders smashed the glass of my beloved car and stole what was mine? Should I start with the funeral? The Frankels? The indignity of the dereliction of duty, the misassigned priorities?
I stood in front of the bench and pulled out the envelope. Opening it I let the glass—more like misshapen crystal nuggets if you’ve ever seen broken auto glass—fall into my hands. “Your honor,” I began. “I have evidence. Proof.”
The judge shook his head, his voice as exhausted as our surroundings. “ Young lady, this city’s full of broken glass. Don’t bring more into my courtroom.”
With more affect than effect, and really very little of either, he banged his gavel. “Dismissed.”
Simi Monheit lives and writes in California. Her first novel, The Goldie Standard, is coming out in spring 2024.