Inexplicably, I woke up yesterday with a black eye. Could this be from crying? It’s possible that soon my head will start rotating fast on its axis, and I’ll start issuing forth green bile.
Until then, Grace Paley.
I started Enormous Changes at the Last Minute
while in the hospital. It is Paley’s second collection of stories, published in 1960. My love affair with New York started as a literary one, and there’s almost nothing as pleasurable to me as reading a book in which the city is the story’s beating heart. My life in New York was wholly mediated by literature: by Mary McCarthy, Dawn Powell, Paula Fox. My own life glided lightly over this far richer fictional landscape, of bars and street corners and park fountains that actually existed, but were made real by another’s pen.
On my second to last night living in New York, I spent a long time sitting on my building’s stoop in East Harlem, wanting to remember always the life of the block: the stickball team, with their customised t-shirts, the numbers runners
, the short-lived East 105th Street Social Club (closed down by police), the mamas leaning out their front windows in cotton housedresses and hair rollers. At the bodega on the corner, change was slid under a scratched-up Perspex barrier: it was the kind of place where you could buy a single cigarette.
Isaac’s grandfather grew up blocks away, where Mount Sinai hospital now stands, when the area teemed with a earlier generation of immigrants: Jews from Eastern Europe, the Irish. Sid and Ruth, his great-uncle and aunt, live in a Brooklyn old people’s home now, stashing away the (now forbidden) Malomars that visitors bring. Their walls are hung with Ruth’s tapestries: reproductions and interpretations of Miró etc., and, my favourite, a Brooklyn street scene with their sons’ names incorporated into the Hebrew-lettered shop signs and awnings. Sid presents these works as if a docent at the Met: nobody could be prouder. He’s blind, Sid, and Ruth’s demented, but he’ll time a joke like a pro, and she’ll cut you down with sarcasm unblunted by age or senility. It’s their voices I hear when I read Grace Paley.
“Mama,” Faith said, the last time she visited the Children of Judea, “Ricardo and I aren’t going to be together so much any more.”
“Faithy!” said her mother. “You have a terrible temper. No, no, listen to me. It happens to many people in their lives. He’ll be back in a couple of days. After all, the children… just say you’re sorry. It isn’t even a hill of beans. Nonsense. I thought he was much improved when he was here a couple of months ago. Don’t give it a thought. Clean up the house, put in a steak. Tell the children, be a little quiet, send them next door for the television. He’ll be home before you know it. Don’t pay attention. Do your hair up something special. Papa would be more than glad to give you a little cash. We’re not poverty-stricken, you know. You only have to tell us you want help. Don’t worry. He’ll walk in the door tomorrow. When you get home, he’ll be turning on the hi-fi.”
“Oh, Mama, Mama, he’s tone deaf.”
“Ai, Faithy, you have to do your life a little better than this.”
They sat silently together, their eyes cast down by shame. The doorknob rattled. “My God, Hegel-Shtein,” whispered Mrs. Darwin. “Ssh, Faith, don’t tell Hegel-Shtein. She thinks everything is her business. Don’t even leave a hint.”
Mrs Hegel-Shtein, president of the Grandmothers’ Wool Socks Association, rolled in on oiled wheelchair wheels. She brought a lapful of multi-colored wool in skeins. She was an old lady. Mrs. Darwin was really not an old lady. Mrs. Hegel-Shtein had organized this Active Association because children today wear cotton socks all winter. The grandmothers who lose heat at their extremities at a terrible clip are naturally more sensitive to these facts than the present avocated generation of mothers.
“Shalom, darling,” said Mrs. Darwin to Mrs. Hegel-Shtein. “How’s tricks?” she asked bravely.
“Aah,” said Mrs. Hegel-Shtein. “Mrs. Essie Shifer resigned on account of her wrists.”
“Really? Well, let her come sit with us. Company is healthy.”
“Please, please, what’s the therapy value if she only sits? Phooey!” said Mrs. Hegel-Shtein. “Excuse me, don’t tell me that’s Faith. Faith? Imagine that. Hope I know, but this is really Faith. So it turns out you really have a little time to see your mother… What luck for her you won’t be busy forever.”
“Oh, Celia, I beg you, be quiet,” Faith’s mortified mother said. “I must beg you. Faith comes when she can. She’s a mother. She has two little small boys. She works. Did you forget, Celia, what is was like in those days when they’re little babies? Who comes first? The children… the little children, they come first.”
“Sure, sure, first, I know all about first. Didn’t Archie come first? I had a big honor. I got a Christmas card from Florida from Mr. and Mrs. First. Listen to me, foolish people. I went by them to stay in the summer place, in the woods, near rivers. Only it got no ventilation, the whole place smells from termites and the dog. Please, I beg him, please, Mr. First, I’m an old woman, be sorry for me, I need extra air, leave your door open, I beg, I beg. No, not a word. Bang, every night eleven o’clock, the door gets shut like a rock. For a ten-minute business they close themselves up a whole night long.”
“I’m better off in an old ladies’ home, I told them. Nobody there is ashamed of a little cross-ventilation.”
Mrs. Darwin blushed. Faith said, “Don’t be such a clock-watcher, Mrs. Hegel-Shtein.”
Mrs. Hegel-Shtein, who always seemed to know Faith better than Faith knew Mrs. Hegel-Shtein, said, “All right, all right. You’re here, Faithy, don’t be lazy. Help out. Here. Hold it, this wool on your hands, your mama will make a ball.” Faith didn’t mind. She held the wool out on her arms. Mrs. Darwin twisted and turned it round and round. Mrs. Hegel-Shtein directed in a loud voice, wheeling back and forth and pointing out serious mistakes.
“Gittel, Gittel,” she cried, “it should be rounder, you’re making a square. Faithy, be more steadier. Move a little. You got infantile paralysis?”
“More wool, more wool,” said Mrs. Darwin, dropping one completed ball into a shopping bag. They were busy as bees in a ladies’ murmur about life and lives. They worked. They took vital facts from one another and looked as dedicated as a kibbutz.
From Grace Paley’s Faith in the Afternoon
in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute
, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York: 1960.