the lone bellow brooklyn

Please explain what just happened.

We just stopped at a little gas station where they had homemade hamburgers. We think there’s a 50/50 chance that this is actually true.

 chris ruenI can tell by the sound of your voice that you are famously handsome.

What?

 

Your voice—it sounds famously handsome.

To me it’s just nasal.

 

Fascinating. So, how was your recent sold out event at the New York Public Library with David Byrne?

Great! My head didn’t explode, which was a plus. There will be video of the event online soon. I’ll post it via one of my many online presences-es.

My friend Susie called me the other day.

“Hey Snooze,” I said, putting on my headset so that when the dog tried to murder a squirrel, I’d have both hands free.

“Hey.” There was an ocean of melancholy in that “Hey.” Susie can say a lot in one syllable. I guess it’s not surprising that she’s a poet.

“What’s wrong?”

“Well, I went to look at my book sales on Amazon, and I got all excited because I sold five copies.”

The other day I got on the L-train at Third Avenue, hair still wet from the gym, molars cemented together by the last bite of my post-workout protein bar. Grabbing the nearest pole, I quickly scanned the occupied seats, knowing that if I parked myself in front of the nearest pair of Converse, I’d probably get a seat at Bedford or Lorimer. Listening to a recent NPR podcast and rifling in my bag for some gum, I quickly spotted her. The ex-girlfriend of an ex-boyfriend of mine.

Please explain what just happened.

I woke up, put water on for coffee, and changed my son’s diaper while it boiled.

 

What is your earliest memory?

I’m four years old and lying on a couch at my grandparents’ house with my grandfather in his reclining chair a few feet away. We are kicking it (old school, I suppose).

Back in August, with Hurricane Irene bearing down on NYC and New England, Brooklyn singer/songwriter The Reverend John DeLore tweaked the lyrics to the old Leadbelly classic, “Goodnight Irene,” to give it a timely Gotham City theme, a musical plea to spare the island metropolis. DeLore recorded a solo acoustic version around 3pm on August 28, emailed it to a number of his musician friends across the city’s five boroughs, who in turn recorded additional parts and emailed them back to him. DeLore (a part-time sound engineer with WNYC’s Studio 360) then mixed the 19 tracks (there’s even a Glockenspiel!) for the final version, all of it conceived, recorded and produced within a ten-hour span.

Hurricane Irene (NYC 2011) by The Reverend John DeLore & Friends

DeLore’s inspired 2009 debut recalls, among other things, the loneliness of the road and the oddly absurd give-and-take inherent in relationships. His latest release, Little John The Conqueror, is an extremely well-crafted take on the hero’s journey. DeLore represents the new breed of DIY artists doing all they can to put their work out there. DeLore is most definitely not the singer/songwriter Art Edwards was talking about at the Portland TNBLE. So far, DeLore’s work, in my opinion, surpasses most of, say, a band like Wilco’s efforts.

I recently spoke with John about the craft of songwriting, poetry, the resurgence of vinyl music releases, what he’d do if he ever met Leonard Cohen, the magic of train travel, and the history of Voodoo Viagra.

I never want to accept any invite to attend any organized event, ever. Yet, I always do accept and I almost always go.

Why?

Well, I’ve been thinking.

For one, saying “yes” feels good. All non-sociopaths want to please other humans to some degree, and accepting an invite usually engenders good will between the inviter and the invitee.

Fear is also a critical component. If I say “no” too much, will I cease to be remembered? Upon my fiftieth declination, will my phone number and email be deleted from every contact database the world over? Will the walls of my silly little bedroom collapse on top of me, as the North American Coalition Against Bad Excuses files away every last memory of my existence? All photos, commendations, and birthday cards slid into a tattered manila envelope containing only Hootie and the Blowfish singles and Palm Pilot owners’ manuals?

“Luke? Luke who? Let me check the Shit No One Cares About envelope. Oh, yes. He was invited to Beth Maloney’s sister’s medical school graduation party and said he had a dermatology appointment. That was number fifty. Yes, I’m afraid there are no more invites for Luke. Not here, or anywhere else for that matter. That scoundrel. That poor, inconsiderate bastard.”

Last, there are my delusions. Time and time again, some scheming agent in my withering brain mounts a dendritic pummel horse and performs dazzling gymnastics routines. After his dismount, I see speed networking events as “useful”, aunts’ birthday parties as “important”, and high school reunions as “chances to reconnect”. I think pummel-horse man operates in the same cognitive space that houses every “getting ready to go out” movie montage I’ve ever seen because, for a split second after agreeing to go somewhere, I picture myself thumbing through rows of fine suits in a cavernous walk-in closet, oblivious to a well-engineered soundtrack that seamlessly blends the din of Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City with the street noise of my imaginary perfect Park Avenue block. This will be fun. This is what people do. Who knows what the night holds?!

The thing is: I do know.

There have been very few instances where I haven’t forecast every thing that was going to happen before it did. Speed networking will always consist of sweaty palms, poorly formatted business cards, and allusions to the Cape’s unpredictable weather patterns. Aunt Paige’s birthday will always leave me longing for a time when every woman in my extended family wasn’t divorced and dating fifty-year-old mortgage-brokers who offer little more than made-up stories about how close they once came to qualifying for the American Express Centurion card. High school reunions will always be a lot like Aunt Paige’s birthday, except with soon-to-be mortgage brokers struggling to remember the names of their “favorite” single malts. I know this, and I still go. To everything. Always. In fact, it was for all these reasons that I accepted a dinner invite last Saturday. Little did I know, that acceptance would be my last.

I’d planned on a night in: a hot shower, a jar of Nutella, and a healthy Netflix Instant Play queue.

But my phone buzzed and the plan changed.

A text message from Annabelle, a quasi-work-friend with whom I occasionally grabbed a bite: “Any interest in coming to dinner with me and a few others?” it read.

My psychosis sprung into action. Desire to please? Check. Fear of being forgotten? Check. Fantasy? Maybe. I needed more information.

“Sure, where?” I replied.

Pastis.”

Ah, yes. An overpriced, up-its-own-ass Manhattan restaurant that I can’t afford. But maybe my ill-fitting cardigan will catch the eye of Mike Bloomberg or, better yet, an infertile Russian Oligarch looking for an idiot, American heir. Delusion button pressed. With a “Yes I’d love to” text and a desperate, “Please come with me” plea to my best pal, Sam, I was headed downtown.

Annabelle met Sam and me at the hostess stand and lead us to her table. We sat next to an expansive bar that made me wish I knew how to make even one drink with vermouth in its recipe.

Three others were already seated at the table when we arrived. “The friends.” They seemed harmless. Cornell graduates. North Jersey suburbanites-cum-West Village aficionados who probably clutched their New York Magazine “Best Of” issues like wading remnants of the Titanic’s freshly splintered deck. They smiled, and shook hands, and asked about where I lived, and recoiled when I said Queens. Then, one with a gold Rolex and a puffy red face sympathetically mentioned she had an uncle from Park Slope, Brooklyn. Another mentioned her family’s “small vacation home in Sagg Harbor” in a fine display of counterfeit humility. I let it roll off my back. All was still subtle enough. I pressed my knee against Sam’s, silently communicating my guilty thankfulness.

Then the last friend arrived, and all hell broke loose.

He bent down to kiss the female dinner guests on their cheeks, the shawl collar on his red cashmere sweater flapping against his face with every overzealous dip. I could tell right away that he was something extraordinary, something awful, something for which I never could have planned. Then, he extended his hand to me: “David. A true pleasure.” I looked into his eyes and I knew: I had encountered pure evil.

The things that came out of David’s mouth were stunning. His pretension seemed limitless. It was as if the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald replaced David’s brain with the entire contents of This Side of Paradise, and then destroyed the concept of irony.

 

-“I can’t believe they gave us this table. I’ve been back from Hong Kong, and in New York City for over a week. I’ve been to Pastis four times already. I should think that’s enough to get a decent table. I mean, we’re at Pastis, not M. Wells for Christ’s sake.”

 

-“Waiter, waiter, I’m not sure what this is, but it’s certainly not lamb. Grace, try this. Please. Does this taste like lamb to you? Well, does it?!”

 

-“There’s nothing quite like owning well-positioned retail properties.”

 

I couldn’t be sure anything David said was true or even factually accurate, but I guess he knew that. And that’s why he kept going.

 

-“Sideways be damned, I don’t mind Merlot. What else would you drink with a filet mignon…if trying to adhere to a certain price point, that is? Oh, Lizzy, I’m sorry. I know you’re a Chardonnay fan. No, no. Enjoy it.”

 

-“I swear, sometimes this city makes me wish I were an American.”

 

He clapped his hands, and laughed the way I imagine Boss Tweed would have, if he were pretending to be a foreigner. Inappropriately timed, forced blasts. I asked David what he did, and he replied only, “I deal in the markets.” Soon after, he referred to Zagat guides as “dining papers of the proletariat”.

I looked around the table to gauge my companions’ reactions. Surely, even this group of tip-toeing braggadocios would show some shock. None. Only Sam, my loyal friend, looked back at me terrified, his suddenly sunken eyes beaten in by the endless barrage of David’s insanity.

I became numb. Claustrophobic even. I feared that if I listened to David much longer, my exploding skull would ruin the steak tartare he ridiculed me for ordering. Like a panicked soldier foolishly lured over enemy lines, I resorted to desperate measures. I put down my water glass, placed my napkin beside my plate, took out my phone, and conquered my crippling desire to please.

“Sam!” I said, grabbing my confidant’s shoulder in manufactured alarm. “I just got a text message from my landlord. A pipe broke in my building and my entire apartment is flooded. We have to go. Now!”

“Oh God, let’s go. Oh God, do you have renter’s insurance?!.” His reaction was pitch perfect. He knew.

No goodbyes. No extended explanation. Just a lie. A well-placed lie to extricate myself from the worst commitment I’d ever made.

That dinner was rock bottom, and it changed me. My desire to please is gone. My fear of being forgotten, a thing of the past. And the allure of my movie montage, “getting ready to go” fantasy? Fin.

Sam and I left the restaurant and hopped in a taxi.

 

I turned toward him. “Are we sociopaths?”

 

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I think so.” He opened the cab’s window and let in the blare of a passing fire engine. I breathed deeply as I let it drown out my last regret.

 

“Oh well,” I exhaled. “There are worse things to be.”


I. Where Past, Present and Future Collide

The first “psychic” reading I got some 12 years ago was involuntary. A shoddily clad heroin addict in Hamburg screamed my future at me: “YOU WILL DIE WITHIN THE NEXT THREE YEARS!” Pressing my face against the subway window I quietly started sobbing.

The next day I went to the doctor. He couldn’t find anything wrong, but suggested I go see a therapist.

It’s 9:34 on a Saturday night. I’ve showered. I’ve gargled. I’ve buttoned my flannel shirt three quarters of the way and rolled up the bottoms of my jeans a little. I’ve even done ten quick push-ups to pump some blood into my frail biceps, a desperate attempt to mask inferior genetics.

I send out a mass text to my friends: “What’s the plan?”

For a few seconds, Xboxes are paused, YouTube windows are left unattended, and Gchats are interrupted. Three sets of preoccupied fingers type hurried responses.

I’m awaiting the inevitable. Watered-down gin and tonics, sweaty, rude crowds, and scantly informed discussions between twenty-two-year-olds about how “different real life is from college”. We’ll probably also talk about Kanye West’s tweets and how early we all have to get up for work during the week and why time seems to go faster when you’re out of school. It will be cool to ironically brag about how past our primes we are, because it’s not ironic. We really feel that way. Or do we? Or something. I’ll attribute our fleeting lives to the lack of any new experiences. (“We’ve kind of done it all. Except for marriage, I guess.”) Then someone will start talking about The Office and I’ll go to the bathroom, slicing my way through scattered conversations about American Apparel going out of business and how good Mario Batali’s Eataly is and how there’s no other place on Earth like New York City.

But that’s later.

Now, I’m in the bathroom staring at myself in the mirror. After all my careful preparation, I notice a pimple below my left nostril. God. Dark circles under my eyes. Ugh. The florescent bathroom light in my overpriced, disappointing apartment flickers.  I take a step back. For perspective. Maybe my whole will be better than the sum of my parts. Then, I see it. The biggest problem. My most glaring inadequacy: the long, dry mop on my head. Unruly wisps spilling over my ears. Rampant cowlicks hastily matted down by Duane Reade pomade. It dawns on me that there’s nothing I can do. I’ll look bad tonight no matter what.

I need a haircut.

Two full days of compulsively checking my reflection in storefront windows lead me to Tuesday, when hairdressers start their week. I call and make an appointment and I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I have a plan to improve my life, I think. I’ll be a better human once I get a trim. I’ll call my parents more and tutor a local elementary school student, maybe. I’ll definitely cut out fried foods and start to spend more time outside. The sun is good for me.

I blink and it’s Saturday at 12:10. I’m late for my appointment. I rush into the salon and nearly pass out from the smell of acrylic nail polish. I wipe the crusty yellow sleep out of my eyes and tell the receptionist my name.  She’s horrifying and beautiful all at once. I never thought orange skin and Juicy Couture sweatpants could make me feel so insignificant. I apologize for my tardiness. I’m fixated on her perfectly waxed eyebrows and I stumble over my words.

She gets up from her desk. “Let me see if Kendra is ready for you.” The receptionist walks over to a hairdresser and I see them look at me from across the room. I glance down at a stain on my shirtsleeve and notice that the elastic is stretched out. My wrist looks frail inside the floppy fabric. Why don’t I take better care of myself? I should start to work out again. I should’ve showered this morning.

“Kendra will be with you in a minute,” my spray-tanned goddess says upon her return. I pretend to be reading People magazine but keep sneaking looks at her while I wait. I imagine us getting away from here, from all this. We could move to Brooklyn. She could write children’s books like she’s always wanted. We would be happy there. Sunday dinners. One week at her family’s house. Mine the next. But, nothing’s set in stone. We’d go with the flow. Her dad would understand how it is and he would like me so much. “I know how it is,” he’d say to me when I called to tell him we were staying in. “I like you so much.”

I snap out of my fantasy and I begin to worry about how expensive this place is. I can’t muster the courage to inquire about the price. I’m embarrassed by my end-of-the-month poverty. I hope they take credit cards.

Kendra yells to me: “Lou, come on over!” I don’t tell her my name is actually Luke. She asks me to sit down so she can wash my hair. My neck cranes back over a porcelain sink and, for the first time in a long time, I’m relaxed. Kendra drops a cool dollop of shampoo on my scalp. I’m lulled by an unlikely melody of running water and her smacking bubble gum.

“You want an Aquafina?” she asks.

I do want one. I haven’t had anything to eat or drink all day. I’m weak and thirsty, but I can’t bring myself to say yes. I don’t want to trouble her. Never am I more considerate than when I’m in the company of complete strangers whom I’ll probably never speak to again.

“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”

Like ten tiny knives, her fingernails gouge my sopping skull. Suds seep into my tearing eyes and I grit my teeth in agony. I wonder how a one-hundred-pound woman with pink highlights and four-inch heels could be so mercilessly strong.

“Is this too hard?”

“No, it’s perfect. Just what I need.” Then I make some comment about how long my hair’s gotten and how amazed I am at how fast it’s grown. She doesn’t respond, but what did I really expect her to say?

Kendra rinses me clean and taps my shoulder. “Lean up and come over to my chair.” The sharp pain in my head subsides and I let myself sink into her swiveling, black leather throne. I try to explain what look I’m going for.  She finishes my thought: “Professional, but you could still go out on a Saturday and get the ladies, right?” I think she’s mocking me. Or does she think I’m handsome?

“Exactly,” I say. She’s like a babysitter or an older sister who understands what I go through and knows what’s best for me. I’m comforted.

Now, it’s silent. She clips away.

Then, she asks: “So, are you in school?”

“I just graduated this past May.”

“Where did you go?”

I tell her. She doesn’t recognize the name. I pretend it’s not that well known.

“Did you like it?”

“Yeah, I mean school is school. It was fun to party.” Suddenly, I’m the Fonz. I don’t tell her about the four years of obsessive studying and meticulous extra-curricular preparation. I don’t tell her about how I perseverated over the modern-day validity of Kant’s Categorical Imperative and argued with people about the real meaning of Utilitarianism. I don’t tell her that I went out maybe two nights a week and spent the rest of the time panicked that I wouldn’t ever be able to find a job.

“Are you from Manhattan?”

“Yes,” I lie. “Born and raised.” It would be too much to explain my divorced parents and stepsiblings and patchwork of suburban Connecticut teenage angst.

Kendra takes a break from chewing her gum and lets out a grumbling moan. “Luuucky.”

I wish to be the person she thinks I am.

Silence sets back in and I notice my hair for the first time since I sat down. It’s drying and I’m realizing she’s doing a terrible job.

“How’s it looking, hon? Still too long?”

“No, no. This is fine. Great, actually. You’re good at what you do.” A dumb, semi-patronizing comment that makes me feel important and suave, for a second. She smiles. I smile back.

She unclips my smock and starts brushing loose hairs off my neck. “Want to see the back?” She hands me a mirror and spins my chair around.

“Looks fantastic! Wow.” I respond like she’s just cured AIDS. I’m such an unbearable fraud. I look worse than before. I stand up and begin to feel queasy as I anticipate paying handsomely for this butchery.

“How much do I owe you?” I’m disappointed in myself at how crass that sounded.

“$55 is fine, hon.” She says it like she’s giving me a deal. I feel like I’m her best customer. I have an urge to be very loyal to her, despite the way she’s made me look. I’m a victim of stylistic Stockholm Syndrome.

“Is credit card okay?”

She pouts. “Sorry. Only cash or check.”

I have neither cash nor check. I tell her this and hand her my wallet and phone. “Let me run to the bank. Please keep these as collateral. I’m sorry.” I run faster than I have in my whole life.

When I come back from the ATM, she’s already with another client. I scurry over and give her $65 of the last $92 in my checking account. “I’m sorry. Thank you for waiting. I’ll see you soon.”

“Thanks, hon,” Kendra says.

I pass the receptionist. She’s reading the People magazine I pretended to thumb through earlier. “Looks nice,” she says reflexively, without looking up from her page.

“Thanks. She did a great job,” I say.

I walk out.

I never go back.

Most great pop songs leave you wanting to know more about the story taking place within their allotted three minutes. About how things came to be, where things went after the outro, what the singer was doing during the guitar solo, that kind of thing. Did Gary Numan ever get out of his car? Did the Michael Jackson character in “Billie Jean” secretly think that, yeah, the kid probably was his son? Did Cyndi Lauper’s fun-loving party girl in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” ever calm the fuck down?

The answers to these questions can’t be known, but they are peripheral to our enjoyment of the song anyway, so though they are fun to ponder, they are ultimately not important. But some songs pose questions that are so central to the song’s appeal that ignoring them is not an option. Such is the case in PJ Harvey’s song “You Said Something” from her 2000 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, in which a teasingly undelivered piece of information ensures that a pivotal moment in the relationship between the two main characters remains frustratingly, wonderfully mysterious.

 

Your wife, the daughter of Korean immigrants, decides to repay her mother’s sacrifice by buying her a convenience store. Tell us about your first reaction to her idea.

Well, I looked forward to getting free snack food and earning dividends on the hefty profits Gab thought we could make. I even looked forward to working a shift now and then – I thought that would be kind of funny. The humor dissolved pretty quickly once we started looking at stores and putting together the numbers, at which point we realized this would change our lives. And that was before we opened.

 

At what stage of owning the deli did you begin to conceive of it as a memoir?

I didn’t start off thinking that way at all, and didn’t take many notes, until one day when I was feeling miserable and went to see a friend who owned a coffee shop in Manhattan, and he said, “Don’t let this period be forgotten, write it down, because as miserable as it is, you’re going to remember and cherish it the rest of your life.” And he wasn’t a writer, just someone who’d gone through the travails of starting a family business. So I started keeping notes, but even then it wasn’t for another year that I seriously thought about writing about it. For one thing, I hadn’t written much in the first-person before – I kind of frowned on it, to be honest; I was raised to use the pronoun “I” as little as possible, especially in writing – and had never taken much interest in New York as a subject. At some point, though, I realized I’d had sort of a classic New York experience, like the Griffin Dunne character in “After Hours” who’s sitting in a café one night and ends up getting chased by a Mister Softee truck and turned into a sculpture. That idea, that a dull, everyday person can be transported at any moment to some utterly improbable place – is one of the essential myths of New York, isn’t it? Anything can happen.

 

Tell us a little about working with the famous George Plimpton at The Paris Review. What did you learn from him? What do you miss most about him?

The first time I met George he was in his boxers and black kneesocks and he got mad at me for calling him “Mr. Plimpton” instead of “George.” Then he walked out of the office and I didn’t see him again for about three weeks. He was not a heavyhanded editor. He wanted people to do things on their own and exercise their own judgment. He was trusting. He had a light touch. This not only made him the ideal boss for a bunch of 25-year-olds but delightful company –- the most delightful company most of us who worked for him ever had. That’s what I miss most about George –- just hanging around with him.

 

While you are working at the Review, the magazine is struggling, just like the deli. Did your experiences there help you with the deli, and vice versa?

Those were not the best years for either the deli or the review, but I’m not sure there was ever a time when either one wasn’t struggling at least a bit. That’s one of the lessons I hopefully learned, to recognize things for what they are. It’s very New York to be petrified of stagnation and constantly pursue the cutting edge, but as Willy Loman the coffee salesman says in the book, “Why change if you’ve got a winner?” Indeed, why? Why not leave things alone? Of course, a WASP would say that: we hate change and want the world to go backward, or at least stand still. It’s not always the appropriate attitude, but accepting the status quo – as in a corner store that does what it’s always done, and does it reasonably well – shouldn’t be something you’re afraid of, either.

 

You ended up really liking working at the deli. What most surprised you?

There are, I hope, a lot of reversals to be seen in the book. For instance, early on I talk about a job I had as a teenager pumping gas, and I say that while I liked the work, who knows how I would have felt about serving strangers the rest of my life. Customer interaction was definitely something I struggled with when we opened the deli, but by the time we closed it was my favorite part of the job. This is something I’ve also noticed about my mother-in-law, who’s spent half her life at cash registers: she really seems to enjoy it.

 

Overall, what was the best part of the experience?

Seeing through my mother-in-law’s eyes. There’s another moment early in the book where Kay wants us to put in what I see as a ridiculously low bid for the deli we want, and when I challenge her to explain why, she says the owner won’t respect us if we don’t come in low. Now, I have no idea whether that turned out to be true or not, but my mother-in-law is a smart businesswoman and it was moments like those that not only helped me to understand her better, but to see the world a little differently. The things I learned from Kay weren’t qualities that tend to be associated with the literary world, where the job is basically to be discerning and smart. They were things like consistency, stamina, lack of self-pity and fearlessness. In a sense it was an attitude – how to treat people, how to handle pressure and conflict.

 

What do you miss most about owning your deli?

Having my dogmas shaken up. You know you’re doing something worthwhile when things you felt totally secure in believing or never even questioned start coming under assault. And I miss Dwayne, our sandwich maker, who died in 2009. Half of Brooklyn misses Dwayne.

 

Now that you’ve been a shopkeeper, can you give us the inside scoop on New York’s Korean delis?

They’re struggling. The heyday of Korean delis is over. There’s no official count, but talking to people in the business, you get the sense that New York has only about half the Korean delis it used to, and the rest will largely be gone in another ten years. The city is killing them with fines, the rents are beyond insane, and there’s too much competition from Duane Reade and Subway. Koreans aren’t the only ones getting out, incidentally – everyone is, or wants to be. When I talk to deli owners now, they say I should be glad our family sold our store when we did, because it’s worse now than it was then – and back then people said it had never been so bad.

Now, New York being what it is, I don’t expect the Korean deli to be seen as anything other than a blip in the city’s ethnic history. Certainly they played a role in the overall change of the New York’s livability over the last few decades. (I know an author who claims that by staying open twenty-four hours and being bright nighttime presences on what were then dark and scary streets, Korean delis played a critical early role in the turnaround.)

But as a New Yorker I do think it’s worrisome. New York has always had an image as being open to newcomers – you know, the cliché about anyone being able to make it here if they’re tough enough and they sacrifice. The deli is an iconic business because it’s the kind of job anyone can do – you don’t need any qualifications or experience. You don’t even have to speak the local language. It’s hard to imagine New York doing well if delis aren’t viable, and I worry about what happens if New York stops being seen as a great place to come and get ahead. New Yorkers probably think that will never happen, but honestly, stranger things have happened in the city in the last few years.

 

How has your wife’s family responded to you writing this story?

We were living together during much of the time it was being written, and often I’d come up to the dining room table from my desk in the basement and ask, “Does anyone remember how much a ‘Cash-in-a-Flash’ ticket cost?” or something like that. So it was something we were always talking about, and Kay’s response when I told her I wanted to make her a focus of the book – no surprise to anyone who knows her – was fearless and enthusiastic. (I think she said, “Is there going to be a movie? If so, I want to be in at least three scenes.”) For all of us I think there wasn’t a question after the deli closed that there was a story to be told. It was one of those experiences where you look back and say, I’m not the same person I was when this started. We kind of digested those feelings together.

 

How would you react if your children gave you a deli when they were older?

I’d disown them. No, seriously, that’s a great question. I’d never thought of that. You know, I used to think that the key to a happy life was having just the possibility of things changing in unexpected ways, that tomorrow you might find yourself doing something you’d never thought of. A deli forecloses on that – you have to reconcile yourself to doing the exact same thing in exactly the same place till possibly the end of your life (though it has its own set of pleasures, which I didn’t quite appreciate before). I like the idea that my children would give me a store, because it combines those two things – an unexpected change with the sedentary pleasures of running a small business. I hope I’d have the guts to say yes.

 

Tay Tay was my first friend in Bed Stuy.She stole my money, nearly got me kicked out of my apartment, and ultimately exposed the depth of my self-delusion, but she stuck around. Tay Tay, she was like glue.

Let me explain.

My mother-in-law has told my two sons, four and six years old, that when people die, they become stars in the night sky so they can watch over the people they love.

I should say that I have never thought of myself as Christian. Even before my Catholic mother definitively settled the running custody battle by leaving the state without warning, I had spent enough time and high holy days with my father’s urbane, agnostic, Jewish clan on Long Island to establish firmly my identity as a New York Jew. Now, married to a Jew and raising my kids Jewish, I am the one who stands firm against assimilation, saying no to Christmas trees and telling my boys unequivocally that Santa does not come to our house. I don’t tell them, but Christmas exists for me, in a way.

There was a time when my mom wasn’t around, the stretch when cocaine addiction and other demons caused everything to fall apart, sending her back to the reluctant care of her mother in Iowa. When that happened, I was seven years old and New York City was my whole world. Iowa was a concept without substance, a sort of void you could call on the telephone and fill up with notions. Since it was Fall when my mom disappeared to there, and December when she started calling and telling me about the snow and the country quiet she could see through the window from her bed, Iowa turned into a sort of abstract Christmastime wonderland in my head.

After she left, my mom also told me why she had left. It was an absurd, horrible story, about how some enemies of hers from the Portland, Oregon, branch of the mafia (I know) had hired my father and grandfather to break into her apartment in Brooklyn and inject a huge amount of cocaine into her nose with one of those four-pointed needles they use to give tuberculosis vaccines, so that her inevitable death would look like an overdose (I know!). But of course, my mother’s flinty midwestern grit was too great for them, and though she collapsed and hit her head on a typewriter and didn’t wake up for days, she survived and fled to Sioux City. I didn’t know what to make of this narrative, which, among other things, apparently placed me in the care of a shlumpy, overweight computer programmer who moonlighted as a mob hitman. I loved my dad too much to believe that he really could have done this, but I loved my mom too much to think she was lying. (Also, I was seven.) So the story settled into a nebulous region of half-truth – true insofar as an injustice had been visited upon my mom, but inaccurate as to my dad’s involvement.

One way or another, I needed my missing mom desperately. She had turned rather suddenly from a six-foot-tall, combat-boot-wearing Brooklyn superhero to a frail voice from out of the snowy void, describing old-time country Christmas traditions and bizarre criminal conspiracies, alluding cryptically to her illness and her recovery. So I grabbed onto Christmas as a lifeline. I picked out a delicate glass ornament to send her as a gift, off into the snowy nothingness of Iowa, a life preserver tossed to a castaway unseen amid the waves. I imagined that ornament sitting on my mom’s bedside table, giving her strength to get better and come back to Brooklyn, to me. Since then, I have always associated Christmas with hopeful struggle, with a distinctly Iowan chin-up optimism in the face of cold weather and poverty and December’s crowding darkness.

The next year my mom came back and found an apartment on Ocean Avenue, and my dad grudgingly let me spend most of December with her. She was jobless and weird and government cheese-poor, and I spent most of my school vacation with the other kids in the building, tearing up and down the fire escapes and across the roof and through the basement, or in my mom’s little apartment doing arts and crafts, baking bread in old cofee tins, and stringing popcorn and cranberries on thread to decorate the Christmas tree my mom had gotten free from Our Lady of Refuge.

Our trips out of the house could generally be divided into three categories: going to church, going to local charities for food and other handouts, and walking Jackie, a runty terrier mix my mom had adopted and imbued with a dubious back story of neglect and survival. I didn’t really understand the import of the food pantries and the free gift grab bags at the church, but I could sense the desperation of my mom’s situation. At one point, a gap-toothed Jamaican in painter’s coveralls came to the apartment and gave my mom a bag of weed, then argued with her about money while I pretended to draw in the bedroom. Later, a jittery crackhead friend came over and my mom sent him away with a loaf of bread. My mom explained to me that the only “fancy” presents we would have would come from the church, but that we should spend our time in the week before Christmas making gifts. She would sit in the window with a cup of tea, holding a big magnifying glass to the winter sun to burn patterns into blocks of wood she’d found in the trash.

On December 23, it was cold with flurries, and we stayed in for most of the day baking bread and cookies and painting Christmas cards for each other with watercolors. We had corned beef hash on toast for dinner (“In the army,” my mom said cheerfully, “they call it ‘shit on a shingle’”), lime Jell-O for dessert, then a joint for my mom while I sipped sweet, milky tea. Before bed we took Jackie out for a walk, away from the bustle of Ocean Avenue and into the quiet blocks of the orthodox Jewish neighborhood that abutted the busy thoroughfare. As we headed out, my mom reminded me to keep my eyes open as we passed garbage cans, as people were likely to dispose of old but still useful items when new things came as Hannukah gifts.

My mom and I took turns surveying the trash by the kerb and holding Jackie, who strained energetically at the leash and barked at the distant rumble of trucks. I found a pair of running shoes, used but in decent condition. They were much too big for me, and too small for my mom, but she tucked them under her arm anyway. Later, she found a box full of decorative tin medallions, which would ultimately join the popcorn and cranberries on our old-time, unelectrified Christmas tree. Finally, as we were nearing Avenue K and the end of the block of single-family houses, my mom veered from the sidewalk onto a snow-dusted lawn, toward nothing in particular that I could see. Without breaking stride, she swept her hand low like an infielder charging a slow grounder and snatched something there, a leaf or a crumpled piece of paper, I couldn’t tell. While Jackie pulled obliviously against my grip on the leash, my mom turned to me with a triumphant grin, her left arm still clutching our bundles of found items. In her right hand she held a twenty-dollar bill.

The next day, with that twenty snuggled safely in the pocket of her old army jacket, my mom and I began our one lasting Christmas tradition. We took a long walk to the Salvation Army on Flatbush Avenue, a mighty, multi-story repository of the cast-off things of Brooklyn. My mom had the cashier give us two tens, and we split up, each of us with our found fortune and half an hour to buy the perfect gift for the other. We agreed that I would go to the upstairs checkout and she would go downstairs, and we would make sure to have our purchases well swaddled in shopping bags before we met at the front door.

I remember that I got her a set of lemonade glasses and a tray, etched with a 1950s space-age pattern that matched the linoleum top of her little kitchen table. We took turns wrapping the presents in the back room of her apartment, and because my present to her was five pieces (four glasses and a tray), the patch of white fabric that my mom had fringed around our little tree seemed bountifully laden with presents. We ate chicken soup and fresh bread in round, coffee-can sized slices, and my mom let me have a cup of coffee so I could stay up for midnight mass. The church was on Foster Avenue, over a mile away, and I ended up falling asleep slung over her big bony shoulder on the walk back, waking up in the lurching, foul-smelling elevator of our building, groggy and cold and eager to open presents. My mom had bought me a Swiss Army knife and an old army canteen, which seemed like the coolest presents in the world, and we fell asleep together on the couch in the living room with Christmas music playing on the radio.

As I got older, I gained some perspective on what had happened when my mom went away. In my teenage years when I saw people high on coke, I realized how strangely familiar their behavior seemed, how it reminded me of the time when my mom had grabbed me and run away from parked electric company vans, explaining that they were there to spy on us. By then my mom had moved to Philadelphia and I had moved with my dad to Oregon, and I was pretty content never to see her and barely to talk to her. When I went back to New York for college, I saw her once a year out of obligation, and she bailed on my graduation at the last minute, claiming a potential Philly mob hit had forced her once again to flee to Iowa.

By the time my wife and mother met, on our wedding day, I had pretty much edited my mom out of my identity. I had defined myself as a New York Jew, the sort to scoff at Christmas trees and go to the movies on Christmas day. It didn’t matter that my mom was Catholic, that I had probably been to as many Christian religious services as Jewish ones. As our sons got older, I didn’t hesitate to tell them that Christmas, while perfectly lovely, was not for us.

This year, December brings difficult times for our family. A hoped-for raise at my job has been held up by budget concerns, I forgot to submit and invoice for freelance work, and now we find ourselves shuffling money from savings to checking, transferring balances, thinking about moving to a smaller house. And suddenly, on Christmas morning, I realize the holiday is inspiring in me the slightly silly, middle-American optimism that it did when I was about the age that my older son is now. Somehow, I say to myself, this will work out. We will drink sweet tea and eat chicken soup and find twenty bucks on the street. We will do arts and crafts and listen to the radio. We will be OK.

It has come to my attention, and perhaps yours as well, that virtually everyone in the digital age considers him- or herself an artist. A glance at Facebook is like a trek through the Casbah, with so many people hawking their photos, their music, their writings, and so on.

How can a seasoned artist make a buck in such a climate? It was never easy, and it’s getting harder all the time, as the competition expands. Soon aspiring creative types will outnumber regular folk, who can only spend but so much money on things that—let’s face it—are almost always headed for permanent obscurity. Then, too, a lot of “artists” give their stuff away for free, leading audiences to think all creative output should be free, unless, for instance, it’s written by Jonathan Franzen, whose wealth must approach Illuminati levels if he charges by the metaphor.