ManneeTwo


Mannee ran his luncheonette with the same respect for organization that his father must have had as a cabinet maker. He was convinced that his “system“ would eventually prove successful, so he pursued it with monomaniacal focus. As originator of the system, he found no one else capable of implementing its seemingly simple demands. In fact,the tasks were simple. It was the exactitude used in carrying them out that Mannee always found lacking in those sharing his work world. It’s true only he could keep glasses sparkling on the drain, proud of their inverted alignment. Only he would remember to wipe the last drop of waffle batter after pouring (batter build-up could be a problem on the next pour). And only he could take care of the bain marie. It was the heart of the store and he treated her accordingly, lovingly. In return for his ardent care she revealed her compartmental goodies, exposing textures of eggs, tuna, liver, and shrimp. He chopped all of them fine enough to be manageable on the white bread waiting beneath the thick wooden cutting board. Lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and onions were delegated to spots relative to their importance as accessories. The bain marie was his pride. Where other luncheonette’s bain maries suffered from egg salad in the tuna and tomato seeds in the onions, Manny’s salads always seemed content within their metallic boundaries. He had hammered flat the bowls of several spoons to act as spatulas. With them he patted and redistributed the waning salads after each sandwich. Miraculously, the bain marie thrived as repayment for his attention.

The system was everywhere.

On the menu board, white plastic letters called out the variety of specials. He displayed a typographer’s concern for word spacing and not a single substitution of letters, p,s for b,s, or 3,s for “ees” was in evidence. He kept the original box the letters had come in, in a wooden cabinet under the malted machines, carefully storing them away after the change of each daily special. The refrigerated cake case received special attention. Its stainless steel exterior had sliding glass doors that opened to two glass shelves whose angled- mirrored back enabled customers the full view of boston cream pie, coconut custard pie, apple pie, cherry cheesecake (from the German bakery on Eastern Parkway), rice pudding, fruit salad, and baked apples wadding in their sweet juice, all presented in pristine perfection. There were no crust crumbs on those shelves, no errant piece of pineapple beyond its boundary, no smear of custard anywhere. He liked it that way. So the case was cleaned, massaged, caressed whenever a moment presented itself, before the rush, during the rush and after the rush.

Watching him work, for me, was the greatest pleasure. One that has lasted until this day. I can almost see him now at his work station, standing in front of the ban marie, his back to the coffee pots, grill and french fryer, ready for anything. There would be his cigarette burning unattended off to the side, away from the food, a large sandwich knife on the cutting board with a damp rag waiting to wipe away the remains of salad on his knife or to swab the counter clean of the leavings of the last customer.

It was here that his collected grace surfaced, some inner spark kicking in, throwing off comparisons to dancers, Dominican shortstops, and arrogant point guards. At one time he’d be involved in making three different kinds of sandwiches, while watching that the burgers behind him on the grill weren’t overcooked, intermittently taking up the spatula to scrape their sizzling fat into the well at the side of the grill, checking on the corn muffin toasting under the grill, opening a door under the counter for the gallon jar of potato salad (a specialty of his made earlier in the day) for a side order accompanying the tuna on toast, while shaking the french fryer basket to ensure even cooking for all those innocent fries, pouring two cups of coffee for the guys from the hardware store, slicing a prune danish in four pieces for a “regular” because that’s the way she liked it and doing it all seamlessly, no hitches, no missteps and after the rush was over, moving to the end of the counter, to mash his smoldering cigarette butt, and wait for the next order.

Usually, it happens when I eat out in places that afford a full view of the counterman. I’m making comparisons, of course. Is he fast? Is he organized? Is he focused?… It’s a curse. Mannee gave me — the standard to measure excellence in the management of the short order. It’s taken a long time but I’ve loosened my grip on reaching  for perfection. Instead I’m learning to relax into the beauty of the crumb, the smear, the scrape, the spill, knowing  all the while, for me, they’re closer to the bone.

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Natie & Beverly

Beverly was the daughter of my Aunt Fanny (the oldest of the five Greenspan sisters)  and though my memory of her is like a stain, the dog she gave me, Rhumba with her Merle Oberon eyes, remains vivid. She was the first dog I ever had. I don’t remember any talk of us getting a dog. On a winter night, Beverly and her boyfriend/husband? Natie came to visit (I find it difficult to place them in time. I don’t know if they were dating or married). They had a small white terrier-mutt with a black mask and ears and a plumey white tail with them. Natie owned a driving school and one day Rhumba walked in off the street, she was with them for a few days. Why they parted with her I’ll never know and I didn’t care. I was nine and thrilled to have her. I couldn’t believe my luck and their generosity. I couldn’t keep my hands off her. Before I went to sleep, I let my hand hang over the side of the bed and scratched my new dog’s back with long sleepy strokes till the conversation in the next room faded.


The Flory B., was a fishing party boat moored  to one of nine concrete piers along Emmons Ave. sailing out of Sheepshead Bay. It was a group charter boat equipped with sonar –”guaranteed catch for everyone”. One very early, grey Saturday morning, Natie and I joined a group of fishing enthusiasts who filled the deck of The Flory B. with the high energy that comes with great expectations. Flounders watch out! I can’t remember who put this adventure together for me. It felt a bit unusual being with Natie. He wasn’t quite relative, wasn’t quite stranger. I don’t think I had been alone for a day with anyone who wasn’t a relative, ever. Any uneasy feeling I had soon left me. He was great to be with. He had an imperturbable manner, handling every phase of the trip with experienced surety. He was smooth without being slick, polite with sincerity and in control when it was called for. He had a sense of refinement I found different from the men in my family. He was prematurely bald, his fringe of light brown hair almost blending into his well tanned pate and strikingly placid unlined face. It wasn’t a babyface – his features were adultly proportioned – it was as if an inner quiescence had leeched to the surface to prevent the display of any disturbances. Nathan Wissner as Buddhist monk. The boat chugged it’s way from dockside and we tried to settle in for the hour ride to the fishing grounds. He secured our rods to a place at the rail he thought to be the prime spot. The move got some good natured kidding from our fellow fishermen. Natie, smiled, a silent we’ll see, we’ll see. We went below deck, down a few steps to an area with benches and tables, and waited. The room, painted in hundreds of layers of industrial grey, gave a soft-serve illusion to every surface. It was strangely unsettling. Once we were out of the bay, The Flory B. picked up speed, the captain determined to satisfy its customers with a bountiful catch. The rhythmic hammering of the fuel pump, the staticy cackle of the shortwave and the sickening smell of grease and oil combined to produce my first stirrings of nausea. At Natie’s suggestion, I took an orange out of the bag in the hopes that it’s clean citrus taste would forestall any further discomfort. It seemed to have worked. It only seemed to have worked. The rest of the trip, all two and a half hours, was hell. I never experienced anything like it. I gave unto Neptune my meager gifts – everything I’d eaten since the previous Thursday appropriately, in waves. My fits of vomiting were actually a relief from the reeling bouts of headachy nausea. Finally, exhausted, I slumped down, knees on the deck, hands folded on the hold as a pillow and conked out for the rest of the voyage, Natie’s comforting pats lingering on my shoulder. I awakened as The Flory B chugged back to dockside. I was still dazed and bewildered and wobble-walked down the gangplank to the pier, Natie steadying me as we made our way to his car. He caught nine flounders that he carried in a burlap bag  and carefully placed them in the trunk, out of the way of a tool box and a couple of army blankets. As I sat down in the front seat still riding the waves, he slid into the driver’s seat and looked at me with compassion – an “It’s ok kid, that’s how it goes” kind of look.  “I’ll bet Aunt Fanny’s going to make us a great meal.” I quickly rolled down the window needing all the air I could get, to hold back the reflex-retch that would show I had nothing more to give.

I was working at a design studio in the early 60’s, on 57th and Lexington ave. a few floors above Hammacher and Schlemmer, a department store specializing in top of the line gadgets. The studio occupied the entire fifth floor and some of the unused space — three single offices — were sublet to one-man businesses.Two other designers and I worked out of cubicles set up along one windowed wall that ended in an office, rented out to a guy who published a dental technology magazine. I was making my way down the hallway, to make a meeting about a new project, when I saw Beverly. I hardly recognized her, kerchief knotted beneath her chin, pulled slightly forward, shadowing her eyes and cheeks. She stood hunched in a stained raincoat at the end of the hallway. “Is mister Abramson in?” she wanted to know, as I approached her, showing no sign that she knew me. “Bev, it’s me, Elliot”, looking into her jittery eyes and swollen face, a distortion of my beautiful cousin, Aunt Fanny’s dream girl. I hadn’t seen her in years. I knew in bits and pieces that her life had turned to shit. I never knew the full story. What I did know, was that somewhere in my apartment were three folded letters, still in their envelopes, amazingly fresh, after almost fifty years, written by Natie. They hold the clean, precise script of Natie Wissner and they express concern for the health of my family and politely requested accounts of our day-to-day. The reserve in his writing was one part style and one part prison censor. The letters were sent from Ossining, NY. Natie was in Sing Sing Prison for his involvement in the robbery of a Reader’s Digest payroll truck during which a guard was murdered. Nervously, I asked her what she was doing here – a comforting banality – an attempt to calm the wild despair I sensed within her. I was uneasy. What was she doing here?, looking crazy, my relative?, at “my place of business?”. She said she was hoping mister Abrahamson could help her get in touch with the dentist’s equivalent of the AMA. She wanted to bring legal action against her dentist for implanting radio transmitters in her teeth. The ceaseless din of voices in her head were driving her crazy. I was stunned at her matter-of-fact admission. I didn’t know what to do for her and it was obvious there was nothing I could do. She wasn’t Beverly my cousin, she was some poor deranged soul, driven mad by nobody knew what, living out her life between Creedmore days and suicide attempts. And she was my cousin.


The easy thing to say was: it was the beast that killed beauty. The beast was Natie Wissner. Not the Natie I knew for a summer’s day, fishing for flounder out of Sheepshead Bay or the catch of a guy who charmed the Greenspan sisters. Not the generous lug who gave me my first dog, Rhumba, the sweet mutt with Merle Oberon eyes. How could that Natie put on those novelty, horn-rimmed, lenseless glasses and out-sized rubber schnozz, jump on the running board of the payroll truck, as it slowed down on Route 117, its way being blocked by his cronies in a dilapidated pick-up truck, and send a bullet into guard Andrew Petrini’s head, like mailing a letter? What are we? Who are we? Can we ever know?

After nine stays of execution during four years, four months, and 28 days, Calman Cooper, Harry Stein and Natie Wissner were executed for Petrini’s murder — July, 9th of 1955.  Five years later Beverly committed suicide.


Years ago, when writing some notes on Natie, I could only depend on my memory and the feelings that I’ve had for so many years. I did go to the NY Public Library and sit in a small dark cubicle and turn a wheel of microfilm. Lighted from behind, the pages of the NY Times ran away from me in black and light flashes, yielding nothing.

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Mannee

Mannee

MANNEE, Emanuel. I have a portrait of him. He has an earnest look about him. In the lower right hand corner of the photograph above his carefully printed name, (he affected an Old English type style) is what is only now quite an ironic statement: TO MY FUTURE. How could he possible know? How do any of us know? Did he realize the double entendre. He gave the picture to my mother. As his fiancee? As his wife? The act speaks of a vanity I never thought he had. Did she ask him for it? It looks like a studio shot. That means there was some preparation on his part: An appointment, sitting in front of the camera, smiling, click, being serious, click, pensive click, click. Did he pick that particular pose? The photo is as quiet as he was. How long did it take to think of that adoring phrase? Such an incredible investment of self, turning it all over to her.

FACT: His hair was his treasure or maybe the way that he combed it. The arrangement of it all: parted on the right side  slight rise to the subtle accumulation at the forehead. He would duck away and fend you off with a raised forearm when, knowing his not-so-secret vanity, you attempted to muss that managed head of hair. FACT: His lips–the top lip at its center was strong and sculptural. “A muscular pursing”, a student from the music school down the block from our store commented with a trace of envy on Dad’s embouchure. FACT: We saw Viva Zapata together at the Roxy in “the City.” My memory–and now it’s only mine–has Uncle Jack there, and the feeling that my mother and Aunt Beatie were in Florida. Why does that stick so after all these years?
I was surprised to learn (from my Halliwell Guide) that Zapata was released in 1952. I was almost 17 at the time but in memory sensed, I was younger…It’s a feeling I still have to this day, will I always be the son though a father for all these years?
This gathering of images, these fragments hardly interlocking, feel dangerous, not sharp-edged, but cutting all the same. For questions that no one can answer, questions I never asked, questions I never had. FACT: He died when I was 27. Suddenly, achingly absent, I used to think of him in an exaggerated glow of goodness. Then not to delude myself,  I would relive his stabbing criticism aimed at my sudden lapses in luncheonette rhythm, a transgression of rules I never saw posted anywhere. My feelings of inadequacy, flustering and fumbling behind the counter in front of the master. Its almost as if I had to exaggerated the hurt to insure that I was seeing him a more complete person, that Munya the Good had a dark side and now all you doubters get off my back and let me love him. I held my two hearts one in each hand, in my right hand, a heart pulsing full in the other a heart shrivelled, soundless.

He had a Latin sheen. Maybe it was the pomaded hair, that well attended mustache flanking that muscular pouted upper lip all held in smoldering silence — a Jewish Caesar Romero. Munya–it was Aunt Blanche who called him that with its bun–soft sound, an apt endearment for the man who was my source of unconditional love. I know my aunts kidded him for being a “Galitz”–short for Galitziana or someone from Galacia, a province of Poland at that time. I only knew that, that meant he sugared his potato latkes and loved rye bread with apple sauce. It was only years later in the Jewish Museum looking at a map of Eastern Europe that tracked the coming of Cossacks and the going of Jews that the word Galacia had a place in the world other than my kitchen.

I remember his exhaustion, collapsed in the leatherette and formica of the last booth, elbow bent, hand supporting his head, heavy with sleep during the slow time, no customers–just him and me in his glittering domain, stainless silence anticipating the next flurry of activity. They were long days for him. “The store” was demanding. That he fed all those people and the store devoured him is not overstated. Just to say it plainly–”he died”– isn’t satisfying, it’s not good enough, we needed a reason, a salve for the pain. The store. What a place: a university, a waiting room, a ship, a meeting hall, a theatre, a death-bed.

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Teeth 2

For the wedding party, the bride’s parents rented a seedy little meeting hall one flight above a used  furniture store (Finkel’s – the best you could bargain for – since 1948) in the heart of the Lower East Side. Kessler Hall was a  collection of cracked and buckling linoleum, rolling hills of air trapped behind grass green wallpaper coming apart at the seams. The tablecloths, once white, now revealed a record of previous meals in land mass stains reminiscent of several continents as well as the Lesser Antilles. These were partially hidden by dishes and silverware settings obviously purchased at deep discount at a seconds buyout.

My father was drinking too much. It was a combination of family feeling and the release from the routine drudgery at the store. I don’t remember seeing him that way before, though some word   filtered back to me that he kept a bottle of bourbon under the counter at the store for furtive nips near the end of the day. He was going from table to table flush with boozy congeniality. That was a definite departure from the reticent, low key, fourteen hours a day, six days a week, shveyr arbiter, strictly business Mannee. But such a welcome departure.

My cousin Genie, Pauline’s son, tapped me on the shoulder and tilted his head towards the men’s room. I could tell from the pained expression on his face that my father needed help.

Mannee was leaning against the sink. His face was drained of color and his eyes were fighting for focus. He repeatedly attempted to straighten up only to lurch forward and grab for the sink again. I thought it was funny. My father was stinko, literally in the toilet. And I was there and I was going to help him, offer him some comfort, if I could. At the same time I knew there was little I could do. I loosened his tie and grabbed him under one arm to steady him. I could feel his impending collapse and made a grab for the other arm all the while running my smart- mouth schtick as he fell against me, his cheek next to my cheek, moaning a telltale moan. I remembered how, when I was around six years old, he’d take my hand after he had shaved; to run it down the side of his face, to feel its smoothness. Now, I could smell him through the booze; that Mannee smell of smoky grill, Luckies and sweat and  I knew what was coming. And so did he. Genie and I brought him to the sink. Bent over and hidden from Genie, he reached into his mouth and with a magician’s sleight of hand palmed his uppers and lowers in one secretive move and passed them to me. From wedding cake to stuffed derma he played back the caterer’s meal into the sink while I slipped his teeth into my jacket pocket… I had my father’s teeth in my hand.

I wasn’t looking for any meaning in what was happening then, I was too stunned. But the thought of it has stayed with me for years. Giving his teeth to me made him a baby again, helpless,dribbling puke, weakening with each wrenching spasm of nausea. I had my father’s teeth in my hand. Nothing prepared me for this. I became his secret sharer and the keeper of his animal self.

 

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Teeth

Teeth. I must tell you about teeth. I’ve run in to teeth in my family. I mean literally. I mean my mother’s and my father’s. I’ve always felt strange about each encounter, never totally prepared. Teeth in your parents’ mouths are strange enough: you’re looking inside of them, you can see their imperfections, sense the danger in the possibility that they could really devour you. In fact, there’s a family story, apocryphal, maybe, about my overzealous mother taken to the heights of inexpressible love for her kitten and in that I’m going to eat you all up spasm, bit off a piece of kitty’s left ear. Somehow you learn to tolerate teeth in their mouths, it’s when they’re on the outside that you start to reassess these gods.  My mother’s bridge was a strange amalgam of wiry metal and plastic fakery that she absentmindedly left around the house (it was strange seeing half a smile on an end table or the arm of the Castro convertible) and that’s nothing you want to do with a curious mutt — that’s Rhumba, our black and white terrier — sniffing rooms for the forgotten crumbs of cookies or the stringy shred of skirt steak lodged in the crevice of those aforementioned dentures. But she did. Rhumba bit. The teeth didn’t bite back and driven by the primal quest for meat, reduced five hundred dollars worth of Dr. Klein’s artistry to a clump of mangled scrap. My mother wondered where it had gone. The bridge was the missing piece of the beautiful puzzle of her smile, an interlocking fit on either side of the top row of the remaining teeth that she cherished.  Searching for it, I inadvertantly kicked it along the parquet flooring in the bedroom and then picked it up to examine. I held it in the palm of my hand, and felt the intimacy of her wound.

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Adelene’s new winter coat

That evening, we left Evans Park and made our way to the cleaners — the three street crossings were dangerous, traffic moving in accelerated arcs at seemingly higher speeds at each intersection. Safely across, we saw the cleaners shop, singularly lighted among its neighbors in a strip mall.

We walked in, Cynthia holding what would soon become Adelane’s clean winter coat (a Cynthia pass-along). The store was tended by this young, slim, quite striking Asian woman. She was wearing a tight fitting multi-patterned top that seemed too formal for someone running a business. Her hands were well ringed, wrists braclleted.  Her manner was studied, courteous. She carefully filled out the cleaning ticket as Cynthia gave her the particulars and then repeated them sotto voce for confirmation. Geisha came to mind.

The store space was huge, way too big for a cleaners by my standards. The many plastic covered dresses and suits waiting to be picked up hung in pervasive sadness, accented by the enormous space around them. I’m used to cleaning stores being compact spaces with clothes rush-hour cramped along with a mechanized device that brings your dry cleaning to you at a buttons touch. Not here.

Easy listening music incongruously oozed from the sound system.

We left, coat behind and the idea of a good deed done. As we made our way back to the assisted living place, center, facility, home — I noticed the back of a building I hadn’t seen on our way to the cleaner — there were a couple of windows lighted.

I took a photo.

Geisha came to mind.

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raindog

This past Sunday on 84 and points south, the driving was hellish with the rain torrential for most of 3hrs. We stopped at exit 32- the Queen St. Starbucks. Me, to empty my bladder, as well as to challenge this off-road team of baristas with a complicated chai…”seven pumps of chai, steamed, no water, no foam, at least 180 degrees”  ( it’s now my “usual” at Bway and 81st Starbucks where it’s put together without Q, Harvey or Sam(antha) looking up from the sputtering  Gaggia). To my surprise these regional brewsters blew off my order as if it were a tall black decaf. Take that, elitist Westsider!

We decided to fill up at the Gulf station next door, not wanting to have to stop for gas closer to the city. I had to hit the bathroom again and ran through the pouring rain to the station “rest room”. Imagine your experience of a gas station bathroom. Ditto. On my way out, running through the downpour to the car, I spotted this dog in a car looking out for his owner.

I’ve started carrying around my LUMIX point and shoot for moments like this…


 

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