City of Gold
By Michael Burger
That summer, when I was still lost and unformed, I took a job as a service elevator operator at Third North, the N.Y.U. freshman dorm on Third Avenue in the East Village. On my first day, Shlomo Kaplinsky, the building superintendent, gave me a starched, blue, short-sleeved shirt and hard gray trousers, sat me down on a loading dock in front of the elevator, and explained my job to me: I was to wait for deliveries and, when they arrived, bring the deliverymen down to the basement. At the end of the day I was to take the garbage up from the basement, and put it out on the street.
This was in 1992. I was secular, then, and ambitious. At night I would keep myself awake envisioning the blurbs from Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander that would appear on the back cover of my first book, anticipating the sweet and dignified nostalgia that would infuse the foreword to the catalogue for my retrospective show at the Whitney. I had been raised among the upper ranks of the American middle class in the suburbs outside New York City, and at the time I thought I took my new job because I had never done anything so menial, and because it would benefit my photography to get close to the infrastructure of urban existence. Now, I think I took the job out of diffidence and spite, because I needed to escape the expectations that had defined my life up to that point, and because I believed it possible to hold down a job as a service elevator operator without actually being one.
My job, such as it was, came with a free dorm room and gave me something to do during the day. In my off-hours I wandered the streets in search of Art and Life. I believed I was free, and I took pride in presenting myself as a kind of freak. I had wild curly hair and thick lamb-chop sideburns and I wore jeans and a t-shirt and sandals and I carried a backpack with me wherever I went. I struck up conversations with strangers, followed people to parties where I did not know anyone, and walked endless miles from river to river, camera at the ready.
When I went to parties with people I knew from Fieldston, where I’d gone to high school, or Oberlin, where I’d just finished my first year of college, and they would ask me what I was doing that summer, I would put my arms around their shoulders and pull them close and whisper, “My friends, I am an apprentice service elevator operator.”
These were the children of famous knee surgeons at private hospitals and chief executive officers of Fortune 1000 companies. They had internships at publishing houses and investment banks and human rights organizations, or else they were setting off to travel on trains throughout Europe or to drive cross-country in a hand-me-down Saab, or else they would soon be summering in the Hamptons or on Nantucket. “An apprentice service elevator operator?” they would ask quietly, wondering if I was actually poor and they had not known it, or if I had lost my mind from one too many spliffs. Wanting to help me feel comfortable, at least so long as the conversation lasted, they would add, “What’s that?”
“Well, I’m not a certified S.E.O., yet,” I would say loudly and lift my eyebrows. “And they haven’t let me join the union. There’s still a lot to learn.”
“Like what?” they would ask.
“Like the System, for one thing,” I would reply.
“What ‘System’?” they would ask.
“You know,” I would say, looking around as if suspicious of eavesdroppers and lighting fixtures, “how to tell the Albanians from the Serbs, the Hindus from the Pakistanis, who is hip to illegal tipping fees, who will dump your asbestos shingles in the East River, and how it all fits into the university’s Master Plan.”
“Sounds sketchy,” they would say, intrigued and put off.
“Yes,” I would say. “It is.”
After a bit of awkward silence, they would say, “But aren’t you an environmentalist? Didn’t you organize a forum on restoring native grasslands last spring?”
At which point I would look bewildered and say, “Well, I don’t hire the illegals or do the dumping myself. It’s just my job to make sure everything gets to and from the street on time.”
They would then walk away from the conversation.
“Don’t blame me!” I would call after them, gloating. “I didn’t make the System. I’m just learning to operate within it.”
Third North was a relatively new building, built with a red brick façade in an effort to blend in with the existing neighborhood, over which it towered by at least fifteen stories. It was a clean and tame place, and the high school students attending summer programs at Tisch and undergraduates stuck in summer school made it feel positively benign. Being downtown, so close to the edge of Alphabet City, I’d expected to find a brood of young sophisticates. Instead, girls went from floor to floor in silk boxer shorts and bras, their hair pulled back in ponytails. The boys wore rock band t-shirts and Polo shorts, and treated the girls to popcorn at the Hollywood movies showing in the multiplex across the street. There were ice cream cones. There were card games. I sometimes imagined leaving my room and walking naked through the halls dragging a trash bag behind me, just to see if I could burst their precious little bubbles.
Outside, it was a Village summer: the old folkies with acoustic guitars gathered daily around the fountain in Washington Square Park for their sing-alongs and jam sessions; squatters east of Avenue B had massive parties with names like “Last Rites” and “Armageddon,” where sword swallowers and fire artists and DJs performed; homeless men and vagrants mulled around outside the flophouses on the Bowery, sipping from brown paper bags; skateboarders with mohawks and tongue studs practiced their ollies and 360s around the black cube on Astor Place; runaways and junkies congregated on the filthy lawns in Tompkins Square Park; the murder rate increased; the smell of putrescible waste was everywhere. The heat grew oppressive, radiating off every surface subject to the sun. There was suffering and decay in the atmosphere.
I was unsure, at first, how to respond to Shlomo. He was over fifty years old, with thick, round glasses; pale, freckled skin; thin lips; and a rounded gut disproportionate to his twig-thin legs and slender shoulders. Through the wiry mesh of untended, red facial hair that constituted his beard, his breath often recalled an evening spent with vodka. He was a Lubavitcher, and dressed, I thought then, like someone out of the Middle Ages. Though I immediately liked the hat.
Shlomo, I would discover, did not have the mind for numbers necessary to work among the diamond dealers, had little sense of the relevance of garments, and lacked the zeal and wanderlust required to travel abroad. Chabad had located the job at Third North for him because he kept up sufficiently with modernity, and they thought he knew enough to blend into the building and its business. He was a Hasid, but he had been raised in an Orthodox family in Cincinnati and was not insular; his given name had been Max.
A day or two after I started working, I sat on the stool next to the service elevator, occasionally bringing boxes downstairs but mostly staring at the wall in front of me. Every so often I would look through the garage and out the door and see Shlomo standing on the street, talking animatedly at students as they came and went, directing workmen and assorted personnel I did not yet recognize, and constantly rolling Drum cigarettes, which he smoked down to their nubs. At the end of the day, when I had brought the garbage up and put it out on the street, he took me aside.
“Are you Jewish, Benjamin Goodman?” he asked.
“Yes, Shlomo Kaplinsky, I am, ” I answered.
“Would you like to do a mitzvah?” he asked.
“Who wouldn’t?” I asked.
“Have you ever worn tefillin?” he asked.
I was unsure, at first, what he was talking about. “I think once, before my bar mitzvah,” I answered after a minute.
“Come,” he said, and gestured with his hand for me to follow.
Shlomo took me down to the basement, through a labyrinth of gray walls to a small windowless room. There, stacks of hard-bound books and pocket-sized pamphlets, all in Hebrew and Yiddish, were scattered on shelves and across a small metal desk. I noticed a bottle of Absolut in a filing cabinet drawer that had been left ajar. A drawn portrait of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson hung on the wall alongside six other rabbis. They all looked sage, powerful, and just. Some looked away from the viewer, as if to the future, when the Messiah will arrive. Others looked directly at you, as if to challenge your doubting it.
Shlomo picked up a purple velvet bag and removed two leather straps, each attached to a small, square leather box. He placed one box on my left bicep, so that when I dropped my arm the box lay next to my heart, and told me that inside the box was a scroll with biblical passages printed on it. He led me through the prayer, and wrapped the leather band seven times around my left arm and three times around my middle finger. Then, he placed the other box on my forehead, between my eyes, led me through another prayer, wrapped the leather band around my head, and tied a knot in the back. I stood still for a minute while he gazed at me. It all felt very cultish and bizarre. Yet, at the same time, I could also sense how it was infused with a mystical purposefulness, as if the performance of this strange ritual might lobby magistrates in invisible cities.
After he had unwrapped the leather straps and removed the boxes from my body, Shlomo said, “This is the truth of it, Benjamin. To abide by the commandments of the Torah. To live in the light of Hashem. Don’t let this city confuse you.”
“Okay,” I said, feeling confused, and started to retreat toward the door.
“Good,” he said, forcefully, “because the people here are at sea, and they have no idea who set them adrift.”
In those days, I believed myself possessed of unique intelligence and a gifted eye, and I was unsure whether or not I should return to Oberlin to finish my liberal arts education or else remain in New York and develop my potential as an artist. Even as I sat half asleep in front of the service elevator, I was vigilant, alert for telling details, convinced that I could redeem each instant of forsaken anonymity with the appropriate frame, focus and exposure. It was hard for me not to go running for my camera every time an inspiration struck me, not to ask the people around me to stop what they were doing, or to redo what they had just done, while I memorialized the moment. But that was not my job. I could not do that. By the end of June I had only a few photos that I had snuck as I was coming into or leaving Third North. A side profile of a milk truck driver, eyes closed, in his split second at the wheel after putting the truck into park but before opening the door. Three uniformed deliverymen with their sleeves rolled up to their shoulders standing around a crate and gesturing, while a fourth, with his sleeves buttoned at the cuff and his hands on his hips, looks at a female student in a miniskirt entering the dorm. The light coming through the shaft in the rear of the dorm. A series of self-portraits of myself manning the elevator. My other photos, the ones I took after-hours, were similarly standard and derivative, and altogether the portfolio may have been sufficient for an application for a job at a local newspaper or an unimportant advertising studio, but it was unlikely to warrant a solo show at even the most unknown galleries in the most remote regions of the urban frontier.
Frustrated at my lack of progress, I confessed my ambitions to Shlomo one day after work, as he stood in the doorway to the garage asking students who walked by if they were Jewish, smoking his Drums and flicking the remainders out into the street. “So you want to see through the veil?” he said, his marble eyes glimmering with mischief.
“Well, the first thing you need to do is to let go of yourself, and see things anew.”
“What do you mean?” I said. I had thought that was the very purpose in my taking the job as a service elevator operator.
“I’m not an artist, of course,” he said. “But it seems to me that you have to give yourself over.”
“Give myself over?” I said, suddenly defensive. “To what?”
“Not to what,” he said. “To Whom.”
I saw the point he was driving at, thanked him for his advice, turned, and, recalling the promise made by the rabbi in my family’s suburban synagogue that faith was not a necessary component to being Jewish in America, started to walk away.
“The sparks of the Divine Presence are in each soul,” Shlomo said in a low voice. “We are here to restore them, not just to document their dimming.”
I stopped. There was a part of me that recognized that Shlomo was my boss, and that I would be working with him all summer, maybe even longer, and that it would not hurt to get to know him and his ways. There was another part of me that was intrigued by the possibility of using Shlomo as a subject for portraits, and that calculated the value of better understanding his system of belief. But there was still another part of me, though I could not place it just yet, that was drawn to what seemed to me to be the certainty of his worldview, and the coherence of his experience. He had order, and significance. His daily routine was filled with events and rituals, like tefillin, that seemed to require a rigorous attentiveness to and participation in the present moment. He had a community in which to share the patterns of living and dying. I had only my prized background and my supposedly bright future, and the truth was that neither of those things felt solid at all.
“How would you suggest I do that?” I asked.
“Come,” he said, and gestured with his hand for me to follow.
Shlomo lived with his wife and two daughters on the second floor of a three-family townhouse off Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights. The oldest of his three sons was twenty-four, married with two infants of his own, and lived a block away. The next son had recently gone to Melbourne, Australia. The third son was still at the yeshiva, and lived in a nearby dorm. The apartment was kept clean of dust, and the furniture was old and heavy and European. There was a smell of broth and damp wood and timelessness at their door, and I felt, to my surprise, very much at home there.
Miriam Kaplinsky, I soon discovered, was originally named Linda and was from St. Paul, Minnesota, where, like Shlomo, she had been raised Orthodox, though not as a Hasid. Whether it was because of her background or something else now missing from her life, she loved cheap romance novels far more than the Five Books of Moses, and there was a great deal of disappointment in her face. She had glossy paperbacks stuffed in drawers all over the apartment. Later that summer, I would see her in the window seat, reading that trash in the sunlight. Once I saw her reading as she walked in Prospect Park; she became so caught up in a story of a viscount’s seduction of a young widow, or some such nonsense, that she walked all the way across the park without once looking up. She shopped, I would learn, at Marshall’s and J.C. Penney at malls in New Jersey, and regretted every sensuous piece of clothing she had been forbidden, by the forced modesty of age and her religion, to wear. That night, I noticed that she wore a discount wig, was sadly overweight, and had lost all angularity to her face. She used a cane when she walked, which was due to an injury to her hip from her last childbirth.
At sundown, I walked with the Kaplinskys to 770, the Lubavitchers’ main shul and center for study. It was rustic and worn, with wood benches and an octagonal bimah situated among the congregation. There were no stained glass windows, as there were in every other synagogue I had ever been in; there were no organs or pianos or acoustic guitars. Rebbe Schneerson stood on a separate platform at the front of the room leading the prayers. The men were on the ground floor, a sea of black jackets and white shirts and frazzled beards and thick glasses and long side-curls. They prayed at different paces, and called out different phrases at different times, and the rhythm in which each man swayed back and forth, bending at times at the knees or the waist, was individual, all of which infused the room with an odd syncopation and sense of abandon. The women were in a room upstairs, behind sealed glass. As the service progressed the men kept shaking hands with one another, and with me, saying “Shabbat shalom!” and “Shalom Aleichem! Aleichem Shalom!” and “Welcome!” Every so often they would start singing and dancing in a circle, one man’s hand on the shoulder of the man next to him, round and round and round and round and round and round and round. When I would step out of the dance one hand or another would pull me right back in, as if they were commanded to do so. As if my presence was absolutely necessary.
Afterward, I went back to the Kaplinskys’ for Shabbos dinner. Shlomo presided over the event with an authoritative tone, but every word Miriam spoke sounded like an order barked by a commander in the midst of battle. When she attempted to speak kindly to him, or to her children, or even to me, the sound was saccharine and grating. Their dynamic was well-formed: she did not hesitate to challenge him or to voice her opposing opinions on political or community affairs, but she understood their differing realms of authority, and when he spoke on public matters, she deferred to his greater learning and experience among men. Later, in those moments when I would see the two of them walking in Prospect Park or on Eastern Parkway, he two steps ahead of her and the two of them never once touching, with their girls 100 feet ahead gossiping and carrying on, as young writers and editors and social workers in running shorts and wicking tank-tops took their afternoon jogs, I could not help but think the two of them together would have made the perfect picture of Discipline and Patience.
Evan Meyers was a rich brat who had been held back, and had lived in Third North for two full years. He lived down the hall from me, and he hated Shlomo in the same way that he hated his teachers and his father, who together were responsible for his being in summer school instead of Easthampton. But I never understood just why he hated Shlomo quite so much. Perhaps it was because Shlomo was the only authority figure around, and so Evan rebelled against him out of habit. Perhaps it was because Evan was a fully assimilated, secular Jew who looked forward to a career in the music industry and marrying an expired runway model, and Shlomo represented something quite contrary to that modality of being. Perhaps it was because Shlomo was aggressive and blunt in conversation, and, I have to admit, there may not have been much about him for an irreligious man to like. Whatever the reason, it had become Evan’s main ambition in life to get Shlomo fired.
Among the kids in the dorm, Evan was the dissolute one. He sold pot and mushrooms and acid, and had sex with as many girls as he could. He was short, and muscular, like a troll, and every day he wore the same red plaid shirt, unbuttoned to the waist and with one sleeve rolled up to his elbow. On the few occasions when he removed his sunglasses, his eyes had the reflective pane of a true egomaniac. He kept an open stash of porno movies in his room, next to his collection of graphic novels and an unopened, hardcover copy of Gravity’s Rainbow.
One night, I went over to his room to buy a bag of pot.
“He’s just a silly old Yid,” Evan declared, his voice coolly nasal and whining. He passed me a joint. “His type will never get ahead in this world.”
“I’m not sure that’s what he’s about,” I said, taking a toke.
“C’mon,” Evan said. “He’s gotta be pulling in some cash on the side. I know he has you dumping some of that shit illegally. You don’t have to do that, y’know.”
“It’s not so bad,” I told him.
“Yeah, well, he’s a real fucking zealot. You see him out there? Talking to the students every day? He’s trying to convert the whole fucking building.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“Hah!” Evan took a long drag from the joint. “The only time he’s not pumping the religion is when he’s down in the basement pumping his putz. I’m telling you, I’m going to take him down. These kids shouldn’t have to put up with him.”
Then Evan offered me the joint again, asked me if the volume of his music bothered me, forced a bottle of beer on me, complained to me about the parties he was missing and bragged about the girls he had laid, showed me his new CDs, convinced me to help him rearrange his furniture, pressed another joint between my thumb and forefinger, played dancehall reggae, fired used batteries at parked cars on the street with his slingshot, and showed me his sketch book, which was filled with pages of his graffiti tag: “Diablo.”
“Seriously,” he said from his seat on the couch, as I started toward the door, “he’s dangerous, a corrupter of youth. Don’t be afraid to report him to the management company if he tries anything on you.” He leaned back and smiled maliciously.
I assured him I would protect myself and stumbled back to my room.
In those long summer days I was beginning to learn that I was, before all else, a Jew, but I was involved with a girl from college who had little patience for such attitudes. We were buoyant, for a time: Suzy believed in my future and was attracted to me in part because of it; I was flattered and gratified by her attention, and felt special because she did not mind my taste for Frank Zappa and John Zorn and did not care whether I was interning at a museum or selling water bottles at the toll plaza on the Triboro Bridge or anything else. I did not have to have any part of my body pierced or tattooed. I only had to be an artist, which was important to her, because she was heading to an elite law school as soon as she graduated college, and so forth and so on from there, and wanted to share in the integrity of that experience before she became a consumer of culture. I did not mind this, and forgave her for it because she forgave me my crankiness and the constant smell of garbage on my clothes and my inexperience with sex and love.
But she did mind Shlomo and the Friday nights I took from her to visit him in Crown Heights. The Hasidim, she believed, were anachronisms, and she did not see what use they could be for me, as I had chosen not to photograph them. Her parents were ex-hippies—a Chinese-American woman and a Jewish man who had met at Berkeley in 1970 before moving to the suburbs outside Chicago and becoming professionals—and the Hasidim’s shtetl mentality seemed small and divisive to her. Like most American liberals, she knew a good deal about small chunks of various religious systems, but she was accustomed to talking about religion as history.
Shlomo did not like Suzy, either. He saw that she was agnostic, and the intermingling of races and religions that had produced her was far more frightening to him than more traditional, vertical notions of assimilation. “Your girlfriend, there, she has some Jewish blood in her, doesn’t she?” he asked one day.
“Yes,” I said.
“I can always tell,” he said. “What’s her name?”
“Susan Chan-Loenstein,” I said.
“So it’s the father who is a Jew,” he said, looking at me knowingly.
“Indeed it is,” I said, and winked. “It’s the father.”
“Well, I suppose they are a nice enough family?” he said. His eyes were watery behind his thick lenses.
“I would suppose so,” I said, though I had never really thought about it.
He paused to ash his cigarette onto the floor. “It is forbidden,” he declared. “As it is written: ‘Neither shall you make marriages with them.’”
“That’s what my mother tells me,” I said.
A smile spread quickly across his face but then disappeared, and he turned away rather than press the issue further.
The Kaplinskys lived comfortably, but without any luxury, and almost every night Miriam would assault Shlomo with hissed pronouncements of his stupidity and incompetence (hissed, of course, so that the children and neighbors shouldn’t hear). Why couldn’t she get a nicer wig? Why, when she wanted something special, did she have to go to Century 21, instead of Saks or Bloomingdale’s? She would beat down what was left of his sad, worldly ego until she forced him out of the apartment, and he would go to 770 in search of more pleasant company. When the men there were engaged in serious study, or for some other reason did not want to listen to him, he would get on the subway and come into Manhattan to Third North. By the end of June, my phone would ring at 2 A.M. a couple of nights each week.
“Ben, it’s Shlomo. Are you busy? Come down here and join me for a drink.”
“I’m sleeping,” I would say. “I have to be at the elevator at six.”
“Just one drink,” he would say, straining to sound authoritative, and hang up the phone.
Looking at Shlomo in his suit and hat, sitting on the cheap couch against the wall in his office in the basement, I could not be upset at him for rousing me from my sleep. At the time, it felt like a small sacrifice to be present and available for my new friend. Now, I know that these acts reverberated throughout the heavens.
“I do not want to trouble you with the worries of an old Hasid,” he would begin.
I would throw myself playfully onto the couch and say, “Don’t worry about it.”
“Miriam is driving me crazy.” He would hand me a shot glass filled to the rim.
“Don’t let her do it.”
“A Jewish marriage is what is called binyan adei ad,” he would say, “an everlasting edifice. It is a reunion of two halves of the same soul, and its purpose is to bring us closer to Hashem.”
“Cheers,” I would say, and we would hold up our shot glasses, look each other in the eye, and throw down the shot in a single gulp.
“You know, to the Hasidim divorce is a tremendous disgrace.”
At 2 A.M., with the dead light and drone of the overhead fixture killing me, and another glass of vodka being poured, I could sense my ambitions floating above this man and this office and this building toward immortality and perfection, but I also suspected how tenuous and unreliable all that was. Upstairs I had a few new CDs and books and a bag of weed I had bought with the money I had earned, an idea for a series of photos, the Village streets to explore, and Suzy in my bed. Yet, none of it held firm in my mind. It was as if my existence was a house erected on stilts, with nobody living inside.
Shlomo did not know photography, and although I kept asking him to explain aspects of Kabbalah to me, he kept refusing, telling me I was too young and the system was too complicated and it could, in any event, prove dangerous. In search of common ground, he would tell me about the time he had taken a poetry workshop at Brooklyn College with Allen Ginsberg. One morning, Shlomo brought “Allen” to shul for Kaddish, and as they prayed “Allen” broke down and sobbed uncontrollably for an hour. Or else he would tell me about how Bob Dylan used to study and pray with the Lubavitchers, and how once “Bobby” appeared on a telethon for Chabad and proclaimed, “Chabad is my favorite organization in the world.” Shlomo loved these stories because they illuminated the vitality of the spiritual essence to which the Lubavitchers cleave. I found them instructive, because they showed that what the Lubavitchers did was interwoven with inspiration and genius.
We would also talk about Brooklyn, Israel, and the habits of the kids in the building. To Shlomo, Brooklyn was “a territorial struggle between the Blacks and the Jews.” Israel was “premature.” And the kids in the NYU dorm were “useless.” He would ramble on about these minor concerns, improvising new phrases and experimenting with all sides of the debates, though he always returned to his foundational conclusions. He was obviously well-schooled in the Socratic method and the uses of the hypothetical, but there was an overriding sadness to the event, as he distracted himself from the fact of his banishment. It would get to be 3 A.M., then 3:30, and he would still be at it. The persecution of the Jews was his real hobby-horse, and at the latest hours he liked to recount some of his favorite tales. By the time he got to the Irish expulsion it would be 4 A.M., and I could no longer abide the conversation. I would stand and yawn and stretch. He would look at me intently, as if trying to decide whether or not to turn the discussion toward the mystical teachings of the rabbis.
“I hope I have not been so much of a trouble to you,” he would say.
“It’s all good,” I would respond. I would return to the surface world, and to clear my head I would take a walk through the Village streets in the warmth of the predawn morning. I felt overwhelmed by how much of life was still new to me, and amazed that I had been given the opportunity to comfort Shlomo. I would climb back into bed with Suzy to catch one last hour of sleep before going back to work.
“Your job description does not include late-night drinking sessions and walking tours of the outer boroughs,” Suzy told me one night as we bickered.
I looked at her. I felt sorry for our youth and insecure about my capacity for romantic love, and I saw our paths diverging over time. It was the middle of July, and the heat was intense. My photos were starting to come together in unexpected ways. I had started to look forward to going out to Crown Heights for Shabbos not only for the novelty of it but also for the dancing and the prayer and the farbrengen. “He’s out of his element here,” I said. “He needs an ally.”
“You’re too generous,” she said. “Just do your job and focus on your art. You don’t have to deal with all of his nonsense.”
“He could be an inroad to a universe of subjects,” I said. “I could apply for funding to do a series of photos on Hasidim around the world, maybe a Fulbright. You could come with me.”
“There are too many pictures of the lines on the faces of old religious men,” she said.
“No,” I said, thinking of the portraits of the rabbis on Shlomo’s wall, and then, because I was angry, and recognized that she was right, I added, “There are just too many lines.”
Sometimes we would run into Shlomo on the street outside the dorm. He would be smoking a cigarette, his suit rumpled, his hat on, his beard a mess. On the surface a pleasant-enough conversation would take place, but, as we three stood there, something unspoken would pass between them, something which made precisely clear what they thought of each other: to him, she was a shiksa, a goy, and it was almost as if she was not there; to her, he was a cockroach, a freak of history, and she would rather he stick to whatever ghetto he had chosen for himself than mingle among the rest of society. After a few minutes I would figure out a way to extract us from the scenario, and Suzy and I would say good-bye to him and move along down the street.
Soon enough it was August, and the Village streets were mostly empty both night and day. The women who were left wore thin mini-skirts and tank-tops with no bras, and the men walked around in wife-beaters or with no shirts on at all. The homeless people on the Bowery flouted their being drunk, and a bad batch of heroin killed off a group of people in and around Tompkins Square. I went with Shlomo and his family to the Catskills for a weekend, to the village of Fleischmanns, and saw how the Lubavitchers vacationed. Then, on a day when the heat broke, and the air dried, and a wind passed through the streets hinting of autumn, it became clear that summer experiments needed to be wrapped up soon, or else they could drag on into real life, and mess up the normalcy of the year.
Suzy and I liked to play games that mocked and illuminated our summer fling. One of them we called, “Is This It?” The object of the game was to see if we could pinpoint the moment that we would hug and kiss and say our bittersweet good-bye forever. There was the time we stayed up all night tripping on mushrooms, and at sunrise I took her picture in an unfenced section of riverfront under the Williamsburg Bridge, with the Domino Sugar factory in the background, and though we hugged and kissed and looked deep into each other’s eyes, and she asked the question, we could not yet bring ourselves to call it quits, and instead went back to my room and made love until I had to go to work. Then there was the time I fell asleep after work and missed a date we had made to eat at a nice sushi restaurant, and while she was crying and I was apologizing I looked at her, and I asked the question, and she smiled and sniffled, and we went for a late dinner at a cheap Polish restaurant and then got drunk at my favorite dive bar, and that did not turn out to be it, either. The last round was played in Crown Heights, where I brought her to experience Shabbos with the Lubavitchers. We did not stop in at the Kaplinskys, as had become my habit, but instead went straight to 770 for the service. I directed Suzy upstairs to the balcony where the women sat, and as I sang and danced among the men, she sat silently, surrounded by gossip and screeching children. Afterward we stood at the entrance to her building and looked at each other, and neither of us had to ask because the question was answered. We hugged, and kissed, and jokingly promised each other we would write in the fall.
For a week I avoided Shlomo. I would not answer the phone when he called late at night, I would not make time to speak with him during the day, and I did not go out to Crown Heights for Shabbos. I smoked a lot of pot and watched a lot of t.v., and I did not walk around or take any pictures. And I did not care about relationships or marriage or Discipline or Patience; I did not care about Israel or the Lubavitchers or Crown Heights or Miriam; I did not care about the Village or Third North or Art or Life; I did not care whether or not I was a genius. I began to think more seriously about the System in which I had been raised. I told my parents that I was thinking of not going back to school in the fall.
It was then that Evan Meyers succeeded in gathering 43 of his customers’ signatures on a petition to have Shlomo removed from his post as superintendent of Third North. The petition claimed that Shlomo was harassing the residents and creating an unwelcome atmosphere. No doubt the kids who signed were all stoned or dosed, and signed because Evan manipulated them in one way or another. None of them were going to be around in a few weeks, so it was unclear what standing they had to complain, or why they would bother.
One morning, soon after Evan posted the petition on the bulletin board in the lobby and mailed a copy to the company that managed the building, a bald man in a plain brown suit appeared at the service entrance. I was staring at the wall in front of me and, wanting to ignore him, continued to do so until he asked me if I could help him find Shlomo. I exhaled loudly, stood slowly, pushing myself up off my knees, and walked with my head hung to the service elevator, where I stood and waited until the man understood he was supposed to join me. I pushed the button for the basement. As I stood there, breathing through my nose and carrying downstairs the man who was going to fire Shlomo, I realized that you cannot separate yourself from your actions, and that I had, in spite of myself, become a service elevator operator after all.
Evan came to my room that night to brag.
“Hey, like, I’m really sorry about your friend,” he said with an obnoxious smile.
“I suppose you’ll need a new project,” I said.
“Actually, I already have one lined up,” he said. “Seems like I successfully completed my freshman year this summer. They’re making me a Residential Assistant. I’ll be staying here at least one more year.”
I congratulated him on his new job and closed the door.
In the basement, there was a cigarette smoking in an ashtray and a bottle of Absolut on the desk. Shlomo stood on a chair, taking down the pictures of the Lubavitcher rebbes from the wall. When he saw me, he stepped down, poured two shots, and made a toast.
“Let me tell you a story,” he said. “Reb Fishel of Strikov was known for a nighttime ritual. Every night before retiring to bed, the rebbe would pour himself a glass of vodka. He would say the blessing over the drink, take a sip from the glass, and then call aloud to Hashem: ‘L'chayim!’”
“L’chayim,” he said, again, and we clinked shot glasses.
“Chayim l’chayim,” I said, and we drank.
After a minute or two of looking around the dusty office, I started putting books into boxes. “What’s next?” I asked.
“I will look for another job, and, im yirtzeh Hashem, I will find one soon,” he said. “Miriam will not stand my being around the apartment for very long.”
I suppose that I had expected, and perhaps had wanted, Shlomo to vent, to worry aloud about how he would provide for his family, to curse Evan Meyers and his assimilationist tendencies and selfishness, to place his plight in the long line of persecutions of the Jews. But he did none of those things. As we quietly packed his books and other personal items into boxes and carried the boxes to his Dodge Astrovan, it occurred to me that Evan was right, that Shlomo and his type would never get ahead in this world.
Yet it was a far different thing for Shlomo to be lost than it was for me. He would wake up the next day and speak the same prayers he had spoken that morning. The next evening it would be the same again, as it had been tonight. He could take comfort knowing that Miriam, for all her difficulties, would stay with him, that there would always be chicken or fish on his table come Shabbos, that his children would be educated in exactly the way he wanted, and that if he could not find another job out there in the secular world, Chabad would find one for him inside their own. And his life would always have meaning, regardless of where he landed in the social hierarchy, or whether or not he obtained immortality. His potential was already realized.
During the first week of September autumn arrived, and the police swept through Tompkins Square Park, ejecting all of the junkies and runaways, and through Washington Square Park, rounding up the dealers who had been openly selling pot to the old folkies and summer students for the last few months. The Village streets were suddenly brimming with recent college graduates seeking their first jobs and Art and Life on the settled edge of the urban frontier. New restaurants opened. My favorite dive bar closed. I read in the papers that the New Season uptown had kicked off with a gala event at the Met, and that Lou Reed had been seen at a new performance art space on Avenue B. A new crop of freshman moved into Third North. The High Holidays were only a few weeks away, and soon it would be the year 5753.
I quit my job as service elevator operator. The infrastructure of city life and the System it sustained would be captured and transformed by someone else.
I did not return to Oberlin that fall, or ever again. Instead, I enrolled in the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, New Jersey, where I spent the next four years studying for my B.A. in Religious Studies, learning Yiddish and Hebrew, and being initiated into the basics of Kabbalah. After that, I moved to Crown Heights for a year, and was introduced by a matchmaker to Deena, another convert from the suburban version of the Reform movement. I courted her with coffee at the Plaza Hotel and walks in Prospect Park and I gave her my favorite CD by Masada. Now I go by Avram, and I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I am an assistant rabbi for Chabad. I perform outreach and run educational programs for college students and the permanent population who service them. Each year on Rosh Hashanah I blow the shofar, and each year at Purim I let myself get very drunk. Deena and I have six children, two of them boys.
I try to make it back to Crown Heights at least once a year. The presence of Hashem is particularly strong there, stronger than anywhere except Jerusalem, and it is rejuvenating to be immersed for a time in the community of the devoted. Shlomo is still there, though his children have all grown and Miriam passed away and he has been unemployed for several years. When I see him at 770 we hug each other and say “Shalom Aleichem,” and “Aleichem Shalom,” but we do not speak of the past.
Copyright © Michael Burger 2012
Michael Burger received an MFA from New York University in 2009. He has previous degrees from Columbia Law School and Brown University. During the day he teaches Law & Literature and Environmental Law as an associate professor at Roger Williams University School of Law. Before the day begins, he works on a novel titled The Jacobson Family Passover Haggadah. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife and daughter. “City of Gold” is his first published story. The author would like to acknowledge the structural and tonal debt this story owes to James Alan McPherson’s classic short story, “Gold Coast.”