Italians and Jews. Jews and Italians. For a significant chunk of my life, these were the two main ethnic groups around me, the bread and butter of my existence.
Sure there were Canadien transplants and Irishmen and Germans and even the old ice-blooded melange of English, Dutch, and Scotch, not to mention Indians and Pakistanis and Chinese and Taiwanese and Koreans but, no, when it came down to it, the others were but patterns on the wallpaper. Here, it was either Jews and Italians, or Italians and Jews.
Take my high school band. The guitarist? Jew. Bassist? Italian. Drummer? Jew. Singer? Italian. Backing singer? Jew. Trumpeter? Italian. Saxophonist? Jew. And, yes, other trumpeter? Jew, too. There was a third backing singer on occassion. A Pole. That’s diversity.
Where did we come from? How did we get here? New York has been overdeveloped but the wildness still sneaks through the cracks. This isn’t really our land. This isn’t the Mediterranean. This isn’t Poland. This is a place where the indigenous names are sprawled across palate-tickling consonants and vowels. The latest addition to the roster of federally recognized tribes is a local one: Shinnecock. They have the luxury of owning the original real estate deed to a piece of Long Island now frequented by the likes of such titans as Billy Joel, Jerry Seinfeld, and Martin Scorcese. But they’ll have the last laugh. After receiving recognition 10 days ago, it’s almost guaranteed they’ll build a casino. They just want what their neighbors have. Call it a case of keeping up with the Seinfelds.
Yesterday I sat in a mall here and the strangest thing happened to me. A man sat down next to me and started to talk. From his looks, he could have been an Italian. Or a Jew. Either way, within five minutes I knew his daughters’ ages, knew the story of how he had once plopped all three of them on a wagon and dragged them around this very mall on Christmas Eve way back during the first Clinton Administration when they were all just little girls.
“My oldest is 22, my youngest is 17,” he said. “Is she your first?” he pointed at my younger daughter, who was asleep on my chest.
“No, I have an older one, too.”
“Well, I guess you just got here. You should take off her hat. Unbutton her jacket. It’s hot in here.”
I did as I was told but I was concerned. Something was not right. Who was this strange man and what did he want? Money? A special favor? No. His story checked out. The 17-year-old daughter emerged from a nearby boutique and they left together. He even wished me a Merry Christmas. I was puzzled. I tried to think if any random Estonian had ever started a conversation with me in a public place. And I sat. And I thought.
Epp wanted to know if I felt nostalgic at the mall. But when I was a child, most of this overdeveloped stretch of Long Island was just fields. It wasn’t like this, I tried to explain. The subdivisions, big box stores, acres of parking lots, Lowe’s, Sports Authority, Target, Home Depot, K-Mart, Starbucks, none of it was here. I watched them plow it under, piece by piece. And yes, I felt a little bit hurt as they did it. I felt like it was not exactly theirs to develop. Even if I did not own those fields, they were still part of my environment. Once the new temples were erected, though, the curious bystanders went inside. I was one of them.
When I think of my childhood, I think of this reflexive grasping for nature. I remember the snails crawling along the wooden fence in our backyard. I remember the smell of low tide at the beach. The most enthralling entertainment around was The Muppet Show. If my childhood had a host, it might as well have been John Denver. Well, maybe just part of it. Because the mall did make me nostalgic. I was thinking of how my cousin and I went shopping when we were adolescents. I bought Pink Floyd, he got Psychedelic Furs. We stayed up late at night listening to Depeche Mode, discussing the plot twists of Die Hard. These were our totems. Audio, cinema: they linked us to something much greater than ourselves.
I imagine that Estonia is undergoing a similar experience as it watches its fields give birth to shopping centers. You have not been bombarded by a shopping experience until you’ve walked through the mall at Lõunakeskus in Tartu around the holiday season. It’s a disorienting, mind altering experience. You cannot even walk anymore; your brain is overpowered by each advertisement, each revolving sign. You become one with the Coco Chanel perfume, the Timberland boots. It’s non-stop action, Lõunakeskus. On one day the ice-skating rink at the center of this commercial octopus might serve as a platform for a hockey game, another day might see it host a figure-skating competition. Lõunakeskus will not rest, it will not stop until you reach into your pocket and buy something.And in the midst of this muddle my older daughter is asking me questions.
Do you believe in God?
I, uh …
Was Jesus God or God’s son?
God’s son. At least, that’s what they say.
If he died, then how could he come back to life again?
Good thing we have Christmas presents to blow the hell out of all theological discussions. How did he come to life again? Who cares? Who can care when there are more boxes to open or chocolate to consume? Say grace? Say, how about some more mashed potatoes? God bless you Christmas. God bless you for stuffing your gingerbread dynamite in the cracks of self awareness and laying waste to it all. Destroy, destroyed, destruction, enlightenment. The paper ruffles and the boxes tear, the high of opening gifts lights the air afire. I care to know the answers to no questions other than the one question, the most important question of them all: What did Santa bring me this year?
Santa brought me Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy and a new brown belt. I needed both. Almost a month ago our bus pulled into Roma at 5 am. We all got out in the rain, and I waited on a platform next to a Nigerian drunk who was vomiting all over himself for a train to take me to Termini. I got out at Termini and followed the streets down to the River Tiber, over the river, and onwards to Vatican City. I sat at the foot of the city finishing off Tropic of Capricorn and eating a leftover sandwich of prosciutto and mozzarella. All around me priests and policemen floated by as I regaled myself with Miller’s foul language (he’s fond of words, all of them). And I wondered if Ratzinger had read this book. He should. He should read it. He might like it. Ratzinger can communicate in dozens of languages. Why not know one tongue more intimately? Miller was from a southern German Catholic family, so’s Ratzinger. Why, they’re practically cousins.
For the longest time, I have been trying to explain away some of these attributes that allow me to wallow in vulnerability. How come I do not think about God? Ever? Why are they lining up for mass and I am asking Santa for another dirty book? The soul is important and yet, I am not nourishing it, not even at Christmas time. Or am I? I try to explain it away. It’s not me, I might think, it’s my roots or it’s the town I grew up in. It’s the company I keep, or the books I read, or the stars that were in the sky on the day I was born. But, as I get older, I am understanding to an even greater extent that it is none of those things. It is simply me.
I even once met a guy who was born on the same day of the same year as me. He had been living one floor above me during my last semester of college. The university had taken possession of a particularly unruly fraternity’s house and turned it into student housing. By some turn of luck they had housed me there, along with a group of other seniors who were keen on making use of the premises for wild keg parties. We even invented a name for our imaginary frat: Lambda Lambda Lambda. And this guy, my birthday twin, was at the center of the racket. He asked me for $20 the day before the first party. They day after the first party, he returned to my door with $80.
“We need to throw a few more parties before March,” birthday twin said. He wore a black leather jacket, had potato peel-colored hair that was already fading to gray, spoke in a dry deadpan, and always looked a bit amused. “I’m saving up for spring break.”
“Where are you going?”
“You’re excited about going to Mississippi?” I cocked an eyebrow.
“Southern belles!” he grinned. “Southern belles! I’ve got a friend at Ole Miss and he’s promised to hook me up with some Southern belles!” He played with the remaining cash in his hand. “So are you in for the next one?”
“Sure,” I said.
“You had a good time last night?”
“Good,” he snatched $20 back from me. “I’ll need this to get us started.”
That was my birthday brother. We shared rising signs and moon signs, but when it came down to it, I lacked his adroit business sense and fondness for the Southern lifestyle. It’s like I said. It’s simply me. Me and nothing else.
I went for a walk through a nearby nature preserve yesterday, still hung up on the question of culture. The wild and raw land of the original inhabitants here has been beaten back and reshaped into the image of America’s mother country: England. Even now the process is not complete. Everything will be ordered and manicured and named. When I was a teenager I could disappear into the thickets of the nearby forests for hours. Now, most have been tamed and converted for public use or razed to give way to new housing units. I could not resist, though, to just stroll off the path into the forest and then out the other side. To avoid the paths altogether. In the center, I met animal tracks of all different shapes and sizes. Deer had certainly been here. But maybe something else. Maybe a bear? Probably not, but, what a thought.
I know none of the names of the trees or bushes or birds. I wish I had Fred Jüssi along for the stroll. I wish I was Fred Jüssi, just so I could disappear into the forest with a great excuse (“It’s my job!”) I need to learn more. Right now I know little of nature and little of God and I am 30 years old. There is obviously still much to do. In the evening my father called me from my grandmother’s house with a boyish urgency to his voice.
“There’s a photograph here,” he said. “It’s of cousin Cosmo in San Giorgio, except he’s dead.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s like a photo of his wake. He’s in the coffin. Do you know who Cosmo is?”
“But where did you get the photo?”
“It was on my mother’s kitchen table.”
“And where did she find it?”
“She said she doesn’t remember.”
Grandma just turned 91. She’s forgetful. But how did she dig up a photo of a man nobody remembers from a village our family left over a century ago? It had been a century until I returned last month. But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s another story.
“She doesn’t remember?” I was skeptical.
“She says she doesn’t know how it got there.”
When my grandfather died, he lingered. I never saw him again, but I felt him in interesting places. He’d just be there, sitting in the chair when I came home late at night. And I was never scared, because it was him. His air was in the chair. He was just relaxing. Maybe flipping through a celestial magazine. Sometime after that he faded away. I figured he was gone for good. Now, I wasn’t so sure again. Who knows what goes on in that house at night? Of course, there was a manicured, orderly, curated explanation for it all. Grandma had simply resurrected cousin Cosmo and then forgotten about him altogether. There were a lot of memories in her 91 year-old head. How to balance the events of, say, Dec. 26, 1939, with the events of the same day 70 years later? I decided, though, to believe that some other power had compelled cousin Cosmo to resurface. The photo on the table. My father at the house. For me, the whole thing seemed too perfect.