A thousand words

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This photograph, taken at the nadir of the Depression, showed up in a box of photos we looked through after my father died.  My father is in the middle, hand on the chest of his little brother Paul, the other arm draped around the shoulder of the urchin in the white shirt.  They are all in short pants, and the two older boys wear ties, likely for school.   I asked my uncle who the other boy was.

“That’s Herman,” my uncle said.  

That was about all I learned.  Herman was a friend who moved away from Peekskill not long after this picture was taken.  I have no idea who took this picture, a person rich enough to own a camera, or if there was a particular reason it was taken on that sunny day.  Maybe it was taken because Herman was moving and wanted a memento of his friends the Widem boys.  I have no idea whose house that was behind them, it could well have been the house on Howard Street into which Uncle Aren put the impoverished family of his youngest sister.

I look at the photograph through a forensic lens, as an artifact of deep archeological interest.  It is one of a small handful of photographic clues I can study.   My father is clearly much bigger than his younger brother and Herman.  He is sitting, or squatting, and almost the same height as they both are standing.  I put my father’s age at seven or eight, based, in part, on my uncle looking five or six years-old.   I’m thinking Herman must have been my uncle’s friend, though they all seem very cozy and friendly smiling for the camera.   

The expressions and attitudes in photos, of course, can be grossly misleading.   I think of a series of photos I found in an album of my mother’s, taken during a festive dinner at my parents’ house.  I am beaming in every one of the photos on that two page spread.   Grinning from ear to ear, my arm around my aunt, interacting with everyone with a huge smile on my face.   The over-the-top happiness I am showing in every picture made me wonder what the hell I was so happy about.  I did the math to figure out when the pictures were taken.   Right in the middle of a six month period that felt to me like a profound depression, a time of personal darkness when I was monosyllabic and dreaded everything.     

So I don’t put too much stock in the tender hand on my uncle’s chest, the smiles all around.    My uncle flinched around my father right up until my father was on his death bed.   It appears he had reason to flinch.  The one story my father told, with some glee, from his unbearably awful childhood, was about the time he stuffed his brother’s mouth with raw chopped meat.   Apparently well worth the ass-whupping he no doubt got for it, he chuckled about it decades later.   So the tenderness for the camera, while charming, even endearing, doesn’t convince me very much.  

Although, it must be said, when my father was dying, once I arrived in Florida, all he wanted to know is when his brother was getting there.   I picked my uncle up at Ft. Lauderdale airport and from the time I brought him to the hospital the two Widem boys clung to each other.  My sister and I were both struck by the poignance of that.  After my father died, my uncle sat with his brother’s dead body, accompanied by my brother-in-law, until the hospital finally made arrangements for the body to be taken downstairs to be watched over by the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish burial society, eventually sent over by the Florida affiliate of the funeral home in New York.  

What strikes me from the photo, outside of my father’s terrible haircut, the inexpert work of some family member, no doubt, is that my father, with his 20/400 vision, is still not wearing glasses.  My father always wore glasses, he was legally blind without them.   Late in his life a new laser procedure corrected his vision to virtually 20/20.  For the first time in his life he didn’t need glasses to see beyond a foot or two, to drive.  

“He looked so weird,” my mother told me, “that I made him get a pair of glasses with clear glass lenses and he wore those.  I was so used to him with the glasses, he was almost unrecognizable without them.”  

I remember the instant splitting head ache his glasses gave me the one time I tried to look through them.  I have his last pair of glasses in my baritone ukulele case, where I put them when I took them off his face minutes before he died.   The lenses are, indeed, clear glass.

But here’s my father, as a school kid, with no glasses.   He’s looking at the camera, and the person instructing the boys to hold still and smile, and he’s seeing only a blur, benignly smiling at nothing he can see.    How long would it be before the boy who grew up to become my father would get the glasses that saved him from life in the retarded class at that Peekskill elementary school?  

There is nobody alive to answer most of the remaining questions I have.  There are only the educated guesses of an amateur sleuth.  And not a dispassionate sleuth, by any means.

 I am understanding, slowly and by unsteady steps, that we don’t grasp anything important about deeply emotional things in a hurry.   The pieces of the story we think we have start to come together in their own time, if enough focus is applied to them.  The pieces that can never be known for certain become more or less likely after they are considered again and again, compared to other pieces that feel like they fit right.  

I don’t pretend to understand how this process works, or even if it works, but it feels to me, some days, like the story of my vexing father is beginning to shape itself into a book.

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Raised to Fight

I was my father’s primary adversary from before I could remember.  We rarely had a conversation that wasn’t contentious, or had some element of sparring.   I am told that I was born “with a hard-on against the world.”  That was the phrase both of my parents always used, my father who fought me from the git-go and my mother who dearly loved me.  I don’t recall my early, pre-verbal provocations, but they were famous in family lore.  

“When we brought you home from the hospital the crib was on my side of the bed,” my father told me.  “You’d stare at me through the bars of that crib with these giant, black accusatory eyes.  You would just lie there staring at me.   You’d never even blink, every time I looked over, those two black eyes would be staring at me.  After a few days we had to move your crib to the other side of the bed, to mom’s side.”  

It rang a bell.  I remember as a new-born thinking ‘who the fuck is this asshole?’  I eventually admitted as much to my father, it seemed fitting under the circumstances.  It was the way it was, the way it had always been, the way it would always be, until the last night of my father’s life.  

“Well, don’t take dad’s word for it, Elie,” my mother explained.  “Some babies are just born angry.  You were a very angry baby.  One day when you were about ten weeks old you turned bright red, and you were completely rigid, and crying, with your mouth wide open like you were trying to scream.   We got very alarmed.”  

“Your little fists were balled up and your arms and legs were straight out, you were stiff as a board, and red as a beet,” my father said.

“We rushed you to the pediatrician, who took one look at you and burst out laughing.  He said he’d never seen it so young, but you were definitely having a temper tantrum.  ‘This baby is definitely having a temper tantrum,’ he told us.  He really got quite a kick out of it.”

I’m so glad he got a kick out of it.  I remember him from that day, actually, and recall thinking, as he threw his head back and laughed through his donkey teeth — too bad I can’t talk yet, I’d love to register a stinging complaint with the medical ethics board against this arrogant asshole of a pediatrician.

My parents blew past all the obvious questions, relieved and vindicated by this pediatrician’s expert opinion.  Did this excellent baby doctor, I wondered years later, offer a theory as to why a baby only ten weeks old could be so angry, outside of plain, native orneriness?

Was it possible I could I have been freezing, or thirsty, or had a diaper rash, or something like that?  A terrible itch, a broken bone, perhaps?   Could I have been trying to scream, ‘would you please feel my little feet, which are ice cold, and throw my blankie over me?  I know it’s been a hot summer for you, and the cool breeze feels wonderful to you, sitting outside, chatting with your friends, but I’m skinny, just a couple of months old, don’t weigh much, and I’m freezing my ass off…’

                                                                              ii

I write this account of my father’s life and times in the form of a dialogue, mostly, because that seems the best way to show him in action.  My father had a certain way of expressing himself, inimitable, really, and I have tried to convey it as faithfully as I can here.  He could bullshit with anybody, was adept at conversation.  He enjoyed chatting, was very knowledgeable about many things and he had a quick wit and a dark sense of humor.  

The fact is, he’d have very much enjoyed a lifetime of shooting the shit with me, he told me as much as he was dying.  He took the blame, said he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years, but he’d been too fucked up do anything but fight.  He took the blame for that, regretted it.   Expressed his regret very sincerely.  I had no reason to doubt him.

                                                                     iii

I was writing this ms. for almost two years when I had a revelation about my father’s mother, my grandmother Chava.  It became obvious to me that my father got the way he was honestly, as his violent little mother created him.  I recently saw it from her point of view.

She died a few years before I was born so all I know of her is that she was barely five feet tall, had red hair (and according to Cousin Eli had been a beauty), was very religious and had a famously violent temper.  I learned that she had regularly whipped her infant son, my father, across the face with a heavy cord.  She also called him “Sonny”.  I conclude from these things that she was an enraged psycho of some kind.   But I eventually came to envision her life from another angle.

Eli told me she’d fallen in love with a Jewish post man, while living with and working for her older brother Aren and his second wife in Peekskill.   According to Eli, this red haired Jewish postman was smitten with Chava, and Chava liked him.  Also according to him, Aren and his wife busted up the romance.   “She didn’t want to lose her slave.  Chava was indentured to them, paying off her passage from Europe as their live-in maid, and she told my father to get rid of the postman.  And he did.”

Years later a marriage was arranged by Aren for his little sister, now on the verge of becoming an old maid. The groom was a man without prospects, Eliyahu Widem.   As the punching bag of his father’s second wife, he had learned to duck and keep all expression off his face.  That was about it, from what I can tell.  Chava found herself living in dire poverty, in a rented hellhole on Manhattan’s teeming, disease and crime-ridden Lower East Side, married to a cipher.

Her new husband drove a herring wagon, the horse clopping from store to store.  When the horse stopped in front of a store, he’d get down and wrestle a barrel of herring inside.  When the horse died he went out with a new horse. The new horse had no idea of the route, neither did my grandfather.  When he returned at the end of the day with a wagon full of herring barrels, he lost that job.  

At some point in the story Chava delivered a still-born girl, or perhaps the infant girl died after a few days.  I can picture the dark, scary tenement, and Chava’s depression and mounting desperation.  I can imagine her, a year or so later, naming the new baby boy, a huge newborn who must have been a difficult birth for the tiny, terrified Jewess.  I can picture it now.  “Israel, Azrael, Widem, Widaen, I don’t give a fuck.  As soon as this kid can stand on his own legs I’m going to start knocking him down.”

And she did.

Cambridge Analytica

In our Free Market, where unfettered competition (LOL) for higher profits is the only order of business, those corporations who manipulate their customer base the best are the most successful.   If sharks are in charge of all public policy, it is not surprising their only priority will be meat.   If maximizing their supply of meat depends on intimate knowledge of the habits of those they eat, they will get that competitive edge, whatever it takes.   Data collection and sophisticated data crunching are essential to wholesale meat-eating in our complex, digital world.  

The genius of that twat who invented Facebook, for example, was to combine the essential loneliness of disconnected people, their hunger for connection, and a seamless way to harvest the essential data and psychological profiles user-expressed preferences provide.  This valuable data can then be sold to shrewd data-mining operators.  No wonder the fine fellow is a multi-billionaire.  The valuable real-time marketing research information revealed to a company like Facebook is incredibly useful commercially and politically, as the recent election American demonstrated.

Now we come to Cambridge Analytica, a company that specializes in data-driven results, commercial and political.  From its inception it engaged in psyops, psychological warfare, using whatever means were necessary to win hearts and minds to persuade the persuadable towards the wishes of their clients.  It is owned by reclusive billionaire and Trump savior Robert Mercer, no slouch in data analysis himself.  The company began with a huge cache of psychological user profiles obtained from Facebook.  As an article in the Guardian states, in connection to Cambridge Analytica’s major role in determining the outcome of the Brexit vote:

Facebook was the source of the psychological insights that enabled Cambridge Analytica to target individuals. It was also the mechanism that enabled them to be delivered on a large scale.    source

From that same article, a description of the company’s mission, by an ex-employee:

“Psyops. Psychological operations – the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change. It’s what they mean by winning ‘hearts and minds’. We were just doing it to win elections in the kind of developing countries that don’t have many rules.”

If you want to throw up in your mouth a little, all you need to do is read this Wikipedia entry.   It is not long, but it is perfectly chilling.  I’ve never read a Wiki more horrifying.   Then, if you want a real shiver of horror, click here.   All you need to do is click “political” on the home page, right there next to “commercial” and look at the first screen that pops up.  I watched the images on that screen loop for a minute, words failing me, unable to click any further.  As a service to my reader(s) I revisited the site.  A click-through of the CA Political menu, accessed through the three bars top right, was grimly rewarding. 

Data drives all we do, yo.  Persuasion vs. Manipulation– who is to really say?  Isn’t it really a matter of opinion?   Opinion is as American as apple pie and a bloated military budget.   “Manipulate” is such a poisoned and judgmental word.   Is it even against the law to manipulate people?  If so, a lot of our largest, most lucrative businesses would have to close shop. LOL!

Secretive billionaire computer genius Robert Mercer bought the company a few years ago, fair enough.   Oh yeah, his friend Steve Bannon partially owns Cambridge Analytica, or owned it, or at the very least was until recently vice president of the sophisticated propaganda machine– at any rate, he disclosed $125,333 in income from the firm last year.  And Kellyanne Conway’s consulting firm did work for Cambridge Analytica in 2016.  The company is now reportedly getting military contracts from the Department of Defense under Trump.   Yeah, so what?  Your point is?

Our First Social Media President

It is well known that this most excellent president we have now was the first American president elected by smart social media use, a constant stream of tart tweets and fierce facebook postings, as well as incendiary stories about his enemies on the internet and television, that galvanized his supporters.   What is less well known is how exactly this media tsunami was accomplished.   Answering that question, including whether any illegality was involved, is part of the ongoing investigation against this persecuted public servant, victim of the greatest American political witch hunt of all time, according to him.

There was a perception in the summer of 2016 that Trump would lose the general election, in spite of his easily bumping off one after another of the Republican contenders and winning the nomination at the convention.  A reclusive right wing billionaire, formerly a Ted Cruz supporter, threw his support behind the controversial Republican nominee and had his daughter make some introductions to the candidate, including Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon.  Trump hired them both and the rest is history.  Steve Bannon is, among other things, an expert in the field of galvanizing young white men via social media.   Robert Mercer, the billionaire who financed Bannon, Breitbart News, and later Trump, is a well-documented genius in data analysis.  After Trump’s Electoral College victory, Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, became an executive on Trump’s transition team, advising him on cabinet picks. 

Facebook, recently revealed (involuntarily, as it turns out) that it took $100,000 in ad buys from Russian troll farms.   Trolls are those who live to stir up shit on the internet, make people angry, muddy conversation, make rational exchange and civility impossible.   These facebook ads directly targeted those who hated Hillary.  They were then blasted out by hundreds or thousands of ‘bots’, mechanical devices that mass deliver thousands of copies of things like tweets and facebook posts.  You see numbers as part of each tweet showing how many times it was shared, how many times it was liked, how often it was retweeted.  Trump’s incendiary tweets were always liked and shared by millions.  Turns out many of those likes and shares were generated mechanically, by troll bots, here, there and anywhere.

A BBC reporter, in March 2017, ran down how the internet sensation was whipped up.

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This all seems to make a sinister kind of sense, if you proceed from the proposition that a winner will do whatever is necessary to win and that no trick is dirty or clean, unless you lose, or get caught.   But what is this shit about online voter rolls?

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That makes sense.  You want to target people who may be leaning your way.  It’s basic marketing.  Confirmation bias and all that.  Voter rolls would also be helpful in knowing exactly which districts to put ad resources into.  It is well-known that the president’s people very effectively, one might say ingeniously, micro-targeted the exact precincts the presidential candidate needed in three swing states to win all those Electoral College electors by a total of 78,000 votes.  

He’s not to everyone’s taste, though Sekhnet always gets a kick out of him, and I find him bright and credible, but the source of the screen shots above, and the full story, is here

 

Death By American Health Care (part 3 of 22,000,000)

The New York State of Health “Marketplace” is where uninsured New Yorkers are mandated, by the PPACA, to buy health insurance.   The place is staffed by undertrained, underpaid reps who will give you several completely different answers to the same question.   The regulations of the PPACA are complicated, mistakes are common and there is no quick mechanism to fix the many mistakes made by the NYSOH Marketplace.   The director of the NYSOH has ordered her reps not to give out her name, she does not want a flood of calls and mail about the many mistakes her agency routinely makes.   If you were Donna Frescatore, appointed director of the NYSOH Marketplace, you might feel the same way.

The onus, as always, is on the customer.   If you don’t buy health insurance within the mandated arbitrary several week period from just before Christmas to just after New Years you will be uninsured for the following year, or at least for the first few months of that year.  All this is to be expected when you leave the foxes, for-profit health industry corporations, in charge of the hen house.  Only in America, folks.

As a result of a mistake at the NYSOH Marketplace I was preemptively denied, in December 2016, the subsidy I was entitled to in 2017.  The subsidy reduced my monthly premium by almost 50%.  I was required to pay the full premium until I could have an appeal. Three weeks after the telephone appeal (in June) I got a well-written legally complex ruling from the adjudicator.  The ruling stated that I was entitled to the subsidy the on-line calculator showed me I was entitled to, retroactive to February 1, when the current insurance year started.

When I got my invoice from Healthfirst for July it claimed I owed the full premium.  It suggested if I did not pay two months (the current month and one month in advance) I was in danger of losing my health care.  When I called I was told that Healthfirst had received the subsidy money, that credit from my overpayment had been applied and that I had a balance of $876 going forward.   The rep worked through the calculations with me and I was satisfied that the amount of remaining credit was about right.

In August I got a bill for $28.  The letter stated that if I didn’t pay this amount immediately my health insurance would be cut off.   When I called Healthfirst the rep could not tell me why I’d received this bill, but confirmed that I had a good deal of credit from past overpayments.  He applied the credit to my August payment.  He couldn’t tell me exactly how much credit I had left, but he offered to do the math with me again.   I told him snippily that I’d already spent 36 minutes on the phone, had done this same calculation in July and was unwilling to do this every month.  He apparently took offense, putting me on hold until I eventually hung up.    

A few weeks later I got another demand for this phantom $28, accompanied by the same threat.  I have a fairly serious kidney disease and new cancer cells on my nose, I can’t afford to be without health care at the moment.  I called to straighten this out.  It was a naive thing to do.  

The rep saw on her screen that I owed $38, and was confused by this discrepancy.  She also saw that I had overpaid by more than a thousand dollars and still had credit.  I asked her how much credit remained.  She was unable to say.  She placed me on hold.  She was nice.  She tried to be helpful.   I told her I wanted a written accounting of what I’d paid, what subsidy had been paid on my behalf and how much credit I currently had left.  She gave me an “escalation number” meaning she was sending my request up the corporate chain.  She also promised to follow my “case” and update me as soon as she had information.  I told her the main thing was to get me a written accounting, she promised she would.

Almost a month has passed, I got no accounting, nor any update from the nice rep, but I did get this the other day:

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Somebody else would bite the bullet and spend the twenty or thirty minutes on the phone to try to straighten this out.  It is the least a customer can do every month, is it not?  I don’t know why I am such a stubbornly bitter bastid.

In a system where there is no regulation, no law, no procedure for adjudicating corporate chicanery, no impartial office investigating health care-related fraud and no consequence for even blatantly fraudulent billing practices, scoundrels nonchalantly generate arbitrary bills and threaten consumers if the bills are not paid.  It’s their nature, who could expect them to resist?

USA!  USA!!!!

 

Azraelkeh

I grew up believing that my father’s name was Israel Irving Widaen.     Apparently this followed the traditional naming scheme for a Jewish boy back then.   The given first name, I learned today, was designated his shem kodesh, or holy name, the name used to call a Jew to perform religious duties.   You’d be called by this name to read from the Torah, for example.   The second given name was the secular name, the kinnui, used every day, hence: Irv Widaen.  He told me his name was Israel Irving Widaen, signed his name I.I. Widaen, or sometimes Israel I. Widaen.  

I don’t know when I discovered this, probably while worrying over the inscription on my father’s grave stone, but his given shem kodesh was not Israel (Yisrael) but Azriel.  It rang a bell, I’d heard older Yiddish speaking relatives sometimes refer to him as Azrielkeh (little Azrael).  

Interesting side note, Azrael, or Azriel, Jeeves informs us, is often identified as the Malach Ha-Mavate, the Angel of Death, in the Hebrew bible.

Israel, Azrael, Iceberg, Goldberg… what is in a name?  I don’t know.  My father’s father had come from somewhere in Eastern Europe, as a very young boy, with the name Eliyahu (something) Widemlansky.   The boy’s name was quickly cropped, American-style, to Harry Widem.  There is an extended Widem family living in America today.  When I was a kid I met Harry’s half-brother Harry, a widower (or possibly divorced) and his brother Peter, who lived on a farm with his wife Elsie.   They lived in Connecticut, as I’m sure some of their offspring still do.  

Uncle Harry, I recall hearing, from Eli, had a leg amputated later in life and was possibly dying from the same horrible disease when, depressed and at the end of his rope, he walked into the Connecticut River one icy winter day during my childhood and drowned himself.  He was a big man, physically imposing, maybe 6′ 4″, who once worked for Isaac Gellis, purveyors of kosher delicatessen meats.   I know this because the one time I remember meeting him he gave me an Isaac Gellis pencil.  I began drawing with it immediately.  I remember the logo on the oversized white pencil had a cool Hebraic flair.  I remembered correctly:

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My father could have just as easily been Azrael Irving Widemlansky.  His brother was Paul Widem, called by the diminutive Pesachl by his mother.  My father was Israel Irving Widem all through his childhood, is recorded by that name in his 1941 Peekskill High School yearbook.  That was his name until his first drill sergeant in the U.S. Army addressed him as Private Widaen.  He tried to object but the leather-lunged instructor told him he was a maggot and to shut his goddamned mouth.  At some point he was promoted to Corporal Israel, as the southern boys called him, and later sergeant, as I recall, but kept the name Widaen at the end of the war.

The misspelling resulted from his mother’s hesitation with English, a language she appears never to have mastered.  When she gave birth on the Lower East Side in 1924 she was asked the spelling of her last name.  Widem became Widaen on my father’s birth certificate, as the nurse rendered it, though that spelling didn’t come into play until Selective Service used the name on his birth certificate to draft him into the Second World War.  I suspect Israel/Azrael might have been a similar deal.

His story was that all of his GI Bill benefits were under that name and that he was told a name change would hold up going to college by a couple of years.  I doubt the whole truth of this story now.  The Widem side of the family, outside of my uncle, his wife and their two kids, was rarely mentioned during my childhood.  I recall meeting my father’s uncles once or twice, a cousin or two, and then– nada.  I don’t know how many Widems there are today, or where any of them live.  

I recall a kid named Curtis, a cousin I met when I was maybe eleven.  Curtis was a few years younger than me, and he also loved to draw.  We sent drawings back and forth for a while after I met him.   I remember my father referring to one of his generation of Widems as an arrogant asshole.  That was many years before my father died.  My uncle and first cousin were the only Widems at his funeral. My more gregarious uncle (a meek-seeming tyrant, as it turned out)  was also not in touch with any Widems.

The family I know, and a very small group it was, were the Gleibermans, the descendants of my father’s Uncle Aren.   If not for Aren going AWOL from the Czar’s army during the Russo-Japanese war, boarding a westbound train with two fellow Jewish deserters while the rest of the army went East, there would be no Gleiberman relatives of mine in America, or anywhere else.  Aren, in America since 1904 or 1905, survived the slaughter of the rest of his family back in Europe, as did his youngest sister Chava, who he sent for on the eve of World War One.  Of the rest, there is no trace, although I learned the names of my grandmother’s siblings who were left in a muddy hamlet south of Pinsk:  Volbear, Yuddle and Chashki.  Of these people there is no trace. 

My father was ashamed of his father.  Eliyahu was a cipher.  Alone of my grandparents, I have no idea where he came from.   He was illiterate, I learned as my father was dying.  Hours before his death my father described his father more completely, and more charitably, than at any other time.  His full description is as follows, “my father was an illiterate country bumpkin completely overwhelmed by this world.”   Eli described his mysterious, deadpan face as “two eyes, a nose and a mouth”.   The picture speaks for itself.  

It’s not surprising that my father accepted a new name, a neologism unknown in the United States, as per my bureaucrat uncle’s exhaustive search of the Social Security database.   My father did not want to look back at his former life, he did not particularly want to be associated with his father’s family, though he stayed in touch with his three cousins on his mother’s side, the Gleibermans.  

I was thinking of my father’s mother, my grandmother Chava.  All I know of her is that she was barely five feet tall, had red hair (and according to Eli had been a beauty), was very religious and had a famously violent temper.  I learned that she had regularly whipped her infant son, my father, across the face with a heavy cord.  She also called him “Sonny”.  I conclude from these things that she was an enraged psycho of some kind.   But I envisioned her life today from another angle.  

Eli told me she had fallen in love with a Jewish post man, while living with and working for her older brother Aren and his second wife in Peekskill.   According to Eli, this red haired Jewish postman was smitten with Chava, and Chava liked him.  Also according to him, Aren and his wife busted up the romance.   “She didn’t want to lose her slave.  Chava was indentured to them, paying off her passage from Europe as their live-in maid, and she told my father to get rid of the postman.  He did.”

Years later a marriage was arranged by Aren for his little sister, now on the verge of becoming an old maid.   The groom was a man without prospects, Eliyahu Widem.   As the punching bag of his father’s second wife, he had learned to duck and keep all expression off his face.  That was about it, from what I can tell.  Chava found herself living in a rented hellhole on Manhattan’s teeming, disease and crime-ridden Lower East Side, married to a cipher.  

Her new husband drove a herring wagon, the horse clopping from store to store.  When the horse stopped in front of a store, he’d get down and wrestle a barrel of herring inside.  When the horse died he went out with a new horse. The new horse had no idea of the route, neither did my grandfather.  When he returned at the end of the day with a wagon full of herring barrels he lost that job.  

At some point in the story Chava delivered a still-born girl, or perhaps the infant girl died after a few days.  I can picture the dark, scary tenement, and Chava’s depression and mounting desperation.  I can imagine her, a year or so later, naming the new baby boy, a huge newborn who must have been a difficult birth for the tiny, terrified Jewess.  I can picture it now.  “Israel, Azrael, Widem, Widaen, I don’t give a fuck.  As soon as this kid can stand on his own legs I’m going to start knocking him down.”  

And she did.

My Father’s Penchant for Frustration

“It’s not fair to call it a ‘penchant’, frustration was not something I sought, or liked,” said the skeleton of my father.

Fair enough.  Except the internets inform us that ‘penchant’, in addition to meaning ‘liking, fondness, preference, partiality’ also means ‘weakness, inclination, bent, bias, proclivity, predilection, predisposition.’  

“Okay, fine.  I was predisposed to be tortured by frustration,” said the skeleton.  “Although, ‘penchant’ really is the wrong word, Elie.  I wasn’t partial to being frustrated, it wasn’t some guilty pleasure, it was a tic, not something I leaned toward out of any sort of preference for it.  I was compelled, you could say.”

I’m thinking of this because I just gritted my teeth the way you used to during the last few minutes of a frustrating 17 minute chat with a bored customer service rep for the Apple Bank, after the requisite five minutes with a series of bots and an infernal loop of muzak, to reset a log-in password I’d not been informed needed to be changed until I got a ‘this account has been locked’ notice with the helpline number.   It is a more and more common feature of the corporate world, saves these fucks real money having a robot tell you how important your business is to them, please continue to hold, or press four to go fuck yourself.  In your day, they were just perfecting the bottom line corporate techniques that are ubiquitous now.  

“There was a time, long ago, when a conversation like that would begin ‘I’m sorry you’re having trouble, we’ve had a lot of calls on that, I can help you.’  I know I was never one for an apology, but the culture itself now considers giving an apology the equivalent of consenting to anal sex,” said the skeleton.  

True, and yet, some part of me still somehow expects an apology when I follow inartfully drafted directions, and then, instead of any kind of mealy mouthed ‘I’m sorry’ when the thing still doesn’t work, get blamed for being impatient when I follow all the prompts and am still denied service.  

“As that affable alcoholic dispatcher at Prometheus Courier Service used to say, ‘nobody cares… nobody cares’.”    

He said it with the saddest smile, a really well-meaning smile.  

“Well, it was wise, in a way, because, as a rule, nobody cares.  You think that humorless drone you just spoke to, who blamed you for not reading some junk mail sent out in May, when all your other correspondence about on-line banking was conducted through e-mail, cared?   She told you that you should have visited the website and read about the planned renovation, the necessity for every customer to agree to a new internet policy, change their password and follow new security procedures.   It doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right.  She certainly doesn’t care one way or the other if you are locked out of the bank’s website.  It’s your problem.”  

Yeah.  I was speaking to someone with a crap job who is badly paid, hates her job, listens to frustrated or abusive customers all day long, goes home, gets snarled at by her powerless, frustrated, abusive spouse, goes to work the next day to do it all over again.  

“Nobody cares, Elie, nobody cares.  If only I had really digested that when I was alive.  It could have liberated me from the wheel of frustration I was so often lashed to, expecting people to do their jobs properly, to not be fucking idiots.  That’s why I loved that Red Foxx bit where he was being dicked around by phone support, you know, on Sanford and Son, and, in exasperation he finally asks the person he’s talking to if she’s a recording or a human.  When she tells him she’s a human he says ‘I’m a human too!’   How much more could people relate to that now?!”  

It depends if they’re recordings or people, I suppose.  

“You know what, Elie?  It’s time to read those sixty pages you harvested yesterday and cut them down to ten, start sending them to corporate types to read.   Distasteful as that might seem, that’s the work you should be doing right now, not venting to some imaginary skeleton.”  

You make a not unreasonable point.  

“Please continue to hold, your business is very important to us,” said the skeleton, extending a middle finger.