High Holy Devilry

by Barbara Fischkin

Is this one of Barbara Fischkin's ancestors, watching her wildflowers?

As the Jewish New Year 5784 unfolds, the late newspaperman Jimmy Breslin comes to mind. Jimmy was a great guy, an awful guy, and a Catholic guy. Channeling him now might be tantamount to sacrilege. Or, maybe not. My immediate ancestors, whose memory I honor this week, loved sacrilege. I imagine their beloved ghosts hovering over me in my unruly but spiritual garden of wildflowers and reminding me that they read Jimmy religiously, pun intended.

Fortunately, none of these relatives, many of them targets of anti-Semitism, were alive when Breslin was briefly suspended from his newspaper for unleashing a barrage of Asian slurs. Yes, that was the awful Jimmy. He apologized. During his long writing life he also published a trove of stories railing against injustice. Included among these were his December lists of  “people I am not talking to next year,” a journalistic winter wind. A bit childish but also fun and laden with messages. Embedded in these lists were cris de coer against inhumanity, selfishness—and snobbery. Jimmy Breslin had no patience for elitism and, in one offering, depicted his ejection from the elegant 21 Club for, it seems, the mere crime of looking like a schlump.

In the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews are asked to apologize to those they wronged during the past year. This week, like Breslin, I will also apologize. But first—and also in Breslinesque mode—I present a list of people to whom I will not be speaking this Jewish new year. I wish I could present this as original, but it has been done before—including by a reporter for the Jerusalem Post. We writers like to copy one another and a select number of us love to copy Jimmy, in particular.

 This list is decidedly local. Like Breslin I am trying to make the world in which I live a better place. In my case this is Long Beach, New York and its environs on the South Shore of Long Island.

  • The first person I am not talking to this year is the self-described owner of a local wine and liquor Warehouse. I will not name her here. Inquiring souls can check Yelp. That this person is connected to wine makes me sad. Wine is also connected to God and the gods. In Judaism wine is for Passover, Purim, kiddish and more. Pacifiers dipped in wine are used at brises—although this is where I vote for medical professionals over mohels. Moving along, wine is what Jesus made from water, wine was the nectar of the gods. (Okay, maybe that was mead not wine, a tough one to fact check.) Suffice it to say that this wine warehouse owner set out to mortify me, despite my status as a frequent customer. I was returning a rancid bottle of typically good wine. I had bought this same wine from her many times before. Hey, in the wine world stuff like this happens. Standing behind her busy cash register, with a line of customers behind me, she insisted that no wine she sold could be bad. She re-opened the bottle, brandished a plastic tasting cup, took a sip and said it tasted great. She did not offer me a sip. Not cool. Yes, she gave me a refund. And then snarled. What happened to “the customer is always right”? Breslin often ended his entries with a consequence beyond his silence. For me, this one is obvious: I will never darken her door again.
  • The second person I am not talking to this year is the entitled commuter who sat on a over-crowded Long Island Rail Road train on one of the hottest days this summer and put his backpack on the empty seat next to him. Two trains had been piled into one and I was among those standing around him, breathing into him. I bent over, looked him in the eye.  “Could you move your backpack?” I asked. He did so with the same look on his face that the wine warehouser had when she handed me back my money. I sat, expecting applause from the other standing commuters. They only stared. Too sweaty to care? Or worried he might have a gun? He looked the type. As I squeezed into the space the entitled commuter allotted for me, he said he felt crowded. I called him selfish. He cursed. I replied with an escalated rejoinder: “language that would make a sailor blush.” Not liking the way this new relationship was unfolding, I got up and walked quickly to the next car. Getting off the train, I saw the entitled commuter a few feet ahead of me. Wonder of wonders. We had gotten off at the same stop. I took a photo of his back and wrote about the incident on social media without posting the photo. One of the comments: “Post it.” It  was from my husband. Consequence: Next time I see the entitled commuter, I will post it.
  • The third person I am not talking to this year has the honor of representing a hoard of impatient jerks: Drivers who honk for no reason. He was among the worst of this breed: Drivers who honk at people on bicycles, startling them willy-nilly. I live in the Canals section of Long Beach, a lovely neighborhood with narrow streets, some speed bumps and an appropriate 15 mile per hour speed limit. Nice people who live in or drive through the Canals, keep an eye out for cyclists, instead of honking at them. This particular honking jerk was trying to pass me, too fast, on a street with speed bumps. The bumps are necessary but they sometimes make it hard to ride flush against the curb, particularly if a car is parked illegally on the narrow street. (Well, nobody’s perfect.) I caught up to the honker at the corner and knocked on his window as he was checking to see if he could run a stop sign. Fool that he was, he rolled the window down. “Sudden honking might make me ride right into your pretty, expensive vehicle,” I said.  He replied: “You are supposed to ride on the side of the road.” To this I replied: “And you probably have a car payment due.” Consequence: I got his number, as in the license plate. Next time I will post it. Perhaps alongside the photo of the entitled commuter.
  • The fourth person I am not talking to this year, may be the most egregious. He is a retired state employee, with a good pension. Years ago he phoned to inform me—and my husband—that our elder son, who has non speaking autism, was too disabled to hold down a paying job. He told us this knowing that since high school our son, now 36, had proved himself by volunteering as a community center maintenance worker, a horse groomer and a farmer. By the way, this dude who judged our son is also disabled. He needs a wheelchair. He observed my son at work and ordered my son’s job coach not to give him any “verbal prompts.” My son needs these prompts to get the job done. Prohibiting them is tantamount to taking away a wheelchair. I recently saw this man wheeling off a local beach. “How is your son?” he asked, adding: “What a great kid!” I was stunned. “You mean, Dan?” I replied. He nodded. “Dan is great,” I said. “Although he would be even better if you hadn’t ruined any chance he ever had to be paid for his work.” On this one, I don’t think there can be any consequences. The guy is retired. Meanwhile, my son continues to volunteer for people who value his work. Paychecks are good. But the presumption of competence is priceless.

Okay. I am done with my high holy devilry.

An endnote: As my own apologies begin in person, I realize I might miss a few people. We all keep better lists of those who have hurt us than those we have hurt. And so, I invite all with Barbara-inflicted bellyaches to get the ball rolling below.

After all, isn’t this why God invented comments?