Nov/Dec 1997  •   Spotlight

The Almost Man

by Oren Shafir

Ha, I almost made it. I'm almost there. Getting closer anyhow. The year 2000. I have this idea that if I make it to the year 2000, everything will be reset like a rewound video. I go back to work. I get Elly on the weekends. You know, a life. Still, I'm not crazy—I know it's impossible. But, I am crazy—that's why it's impossible. And what of it? If you wanted something neat and fixed and sane to read, then you shouldn't have asked me to keep a thought-journal and told me I could write about whatever I wanted. You should have bought a book at the supermarket.


When you see the pictures of my grandfather as a boy in Poland, he looks exactly the same as he did fully grown—only with hair. He had the same kind round face and soft eyes, and his mother used to dress him up in dark adult-type suits. It's true that in some of the early pictures, around the time his father died, he looks somber and discontented, but as he gets older, he looks increasingly peaceful and pleased with the world.


My short-term memory is fucked. I forget things. My long-term memory is also fucked. I remember things. Like how I could never answer my daughter's questions. I didn't know what would happen when she died. I didn't know if I'd be there for her. In the end, I couldn't even be there living with her while she was growing up. Now, she has to visit me here at the hospital where, oddly enough, I feel quite comfortable. And the funny thing is, I see more of her now then when we were living together and I was trying so hard to be a success.

She tells me something great. I finally nailed my ex-wife, whom I used to call Anita Bonita, but now sometimes call Anita Bitchita.

Elly says, "Dad, Mom flipped out. She found out you were writing to me."

"So, I'm not allowed to write to my daughter?"

"Well, I guess you are. But I was keeping them private. I mean they are private, right?"

"Yeah. So?"

"So, she finds your latest letter and blows up. 'How long have you been writing?' she screams. 'Ten years, Jesus Christus.' Then, she tears my room apart looking for those letters, which aren't too hard to find cause they're in a shoe box on top of the closet. I've never seen her like that. I didn't even try to stop her. 'What does he say about me?' she yells and then she doesn't wait for an answer. She sits on the floor and scans them. 'A ha,' she says when she finds her name, 'he says I am a great mother.' It was funny. I don't think the words even entered her brain. She just kept looking for her name, and I don't know what she was looking for, but all she can find are nice or at least neutral things. She went through every one back to when we first started writing. And then something weird happened. She read about you describing the time we flew over Death Valley in a helicopter when I was a baby. And she cried. She sat there on the floor crying. I've never seen Mom cry before. Have you ever seen her cry?"

"Yeah baby, I've seen her cry," I say. Oh boy, have I seen her cry.


We used to call my grandfather the almost man.He almost met Roosevelt. He almost played chess with Paul Morphy, the greatest American chess player until Bobby Fisher. He almost started his own bakery. He was almost co-owner of Oriole cookies. Would have been a billionaire. He was almost a great musician.

My grandfather almost married Sonya Bauxbaum. But instead, he left Poland for America. He boarded the ship, and kissed his mother goodbye. His father had died when Grandpa was a young boy, and Grandpa had no siblings. This was just before World War II broke out, and he could not have known that he would never see his mother again. She was a domineering personality; she always got her way. She had personally arranged seven out of ten of her nephews' and nieces' marriages. Her one great failure was not getting Grandfather married off to Sonya Bauxbaum. The perfect match everyone agreed. She was loud; he was quiet. She had a business head; he had no skills. She was a mensch; so apparently, according to my great-grandmother, he wasn't. But to everyone's astonishment, she could not get him to follow her will. She'd wanted him to marry Sonya, move to Germany and run a jewelry shop. All the details of the business and marriage were in place. But, he had a silent power. Instead, he was sailing for America.

"My mother was a tough lady," he said to me once with tears in his eyes, "but she loved me with a mother's devotion, and what more can a son ask."

He told me how he boarded the ship and kissed her goodbye. She took his then smooth hands in hers and said, "Whatever you do, don't be a baker like your father. It's back-breaking work."

He found his small berth and locked his things there. He walked slowly around the huge ship and up and down the deck levels. He saw a grand piano in the dining room and could not resist. So, he sat and played softly for a while. As he continued walking around the ship, he heard Yiddish and found that it was three fellows about his age. Two of them were the Abromovic brothers on their way to join their father and work in his bakery in New York. They were just talking to the third guy, Josef Weinstein, about how great it would be if they could find a fourth to play bridge on the long journey ahead, and there was my grandfather, almost a great bridge player. They all decided to have a game immediately while they were waiting for the ship to leave harbor. After an hour of cards, they felt the ship moving out of harbor. The game was stopped, and they hurried up on bridge. Then it was that my grandfather was amazed to find his mother still waiting on land below, teary-eyed, to wave goodbye to her only son.


So, I'm sitting in a bar drinking my breakfast when the guy next to me starts giving me the once over.

"You got a problem," I say.

"Looks like you do," he says.

He's an old guy but he looks fit and strong. And rich too, he's wearing smart clothes and his gold ring shines when the naked light bulb on the ceiling hits it. He also has a golden Star of David that looks like it might be worth a few more shots of whiskey. He has thick silver hair and a heavy, handsome mustache. Rich, good-looking guys piss me off. If he'd been younger, I probably would have already taken a swing at him. Not that I think I can take him. I'm a mess. But that's not the point.

"You look familiar," he says.

Then I look more carefully at his face. Oh my God, it's Joe Weinstein, my grandfather's old friend and owner of Oriole cookies.

"Joe?" I ask..

"Jake," he says, "Is that you? You used to be chubby. You look like a refugee."

"I live on booze and Snickers, and I still keep losing weight."

"What are you doing in this dump drinking whiskey at this hour?"

"Well, what are you doing here?"

"I'm not drinking. I'm playing pool. C'mon let's go to my place. I'll make you a cup of coffee."

"No, I don't wanna."

"Alright, I'll give you a shot of some real Scotch, then."

Yeah, he had some good Scotch, alright. Glen something or other, thirty-years-old.

"It ain't seize the day no more for me, Joe. It's face the day. I'm not stupid. I know it's not healthy to drink half a bottle of Scotch a day. But, it's effective, you see what I'm saying? It helps me face the day. Like a shot of Novocain. You wouldn't let the dentist drill in your tooth without Novocain would you?"

"What happened?" he asks.

"Everything. I almost made it. I had it all, but I tried too hard. I tried to be great at everything—great father, great at my job, great husband‐and I wasn't good at anything. My wife wanted me to be rich, and I worked too hard. Now, my wife dumped me for some rich guy and I lost my job."

"My wife, as it turns out, didn't want to be rich," Joe says. "I'm divorced myself. And life hasn't turned out exactly like I thought, either. But you can't give up. Don't give up Jake."

"I haven't or I wouldn't be here. But sometimes," I say," I just think about Grandpa, and I wish I could go back to his little house in Hollywood. That magic fucking little house."

"Yeah, me too, kid" says Joe. "Me, too."


My grandfather and Joe Weinstein ended up working at the Abromovic's Jewish bakery in Brooklyn.It was killer-hard work, but it was a job. He learned a trade, and for a single man in New York city, he was earning what must have seemed like a fortune to a Jewish immigrant. For a while, he and Joe and the Abromovic brothers kept up a weekly bridge game. But then one day, the brothers took up administrative positions. All of a sudden, they didn't have time to socialize.

"They think they're too good for us," said Joe.

"They don't have time," said my grandfather.

"C'mon Abie, wake up," Joe shouted pounding a hand as big and hard as a frying pan on the table. The people in Klein's Deli looked up thinking a fight was starting, but my grandfather was used to Joe by now. "We're the schvartzas around here," Joe continued. "We do all the work, and instead of thanking us, they look down on us for it."

"You really think they think like that?"

"You are too nice a man," Joe said laughing appreciatively.


I feel guilty and feeling that way makes me depressed, and when I'm depressed I can't function properly and help those who need me. And that makes me feel guilty.

Maybe everything is my fault. Maybe, you know, before I was born, everything was perfect. Like maybe the Jews and the Arabs got along, for example. Then I was born, and the Arabs said, "Another Jew? That's it. How much do they expect us to tolerate?" So, they attacked. And then there were all these refugees, and it upset the balance. Suddenly, there was crime, poverty and civil war everywhere. Yeah, that's it, I upset the balance. I try to be unobtrusive and quiet, but instead of carrying the message of silent strength, my quietness intrudes wherever it goes like an unwelcome guest at your front door.

Ever see that movie? The one where Meryl Streep plays the Danish writer; Karen Blixen, in Africa, and Robert Redford plays her British lover, Denis Finch-Hatton. Finch-Hatton very British, you know, but apparently Redford can't do the accent or play a Brit or whatever, cause he's just himself in the movie, beautiful, American Robert Redford. Or how about the one where Streep and Glen Close are Chilean sisters? Jeremy Irons is Meryl's husband, and he does an American accent cause he's supposed to be this gruff Chilean landlord, and a genteel British accent won't do. In fact, even the American accent doesn't quite do it. He has something in his mouth to make his speech sound even cruder. I feel like that sometimes. Like I don't belong. Like I'm miscast in a movie.

But Anita, goddamn her, with her accent and her dark looks, she comes to the States and fits right in. She's got loads of friends, hobbies, interests. She can argue passionately for the Democratic cause. These days, I have trouble remembering which party's supposed to be left and which one right.

Anita says those three special words: "I'm leaving you."

"I love you, too," I say.

"What?" she says. "Didn't you hear me?"

"I heard you. I felt you. But if you want, here, take the kitchen knife and run it through my heart again just to be sure."

"Don't you think you're overdoing it just a little bit at this point? Do you think I wanted it to end this way? But it's a little late, now."

"Oh God, what about Elly? I swear to God, it's not too late. I still love you."

"No you don't. You hate me."

"Yes, but I also love you."

She laughs and shakes her head. "Jake, I'm leaving you. For someone else."


"Didn't you know?"


"I thought you knew."


The bakery grew, became more popular, work got harder.The Abromovic boys married, bought cars. My grandfather was too tired to even go out after work. He'd go to Klein's Deli and drink a cup of tea. Then he'd play the piano there for about half an hour before he went home thoroughly exhausted. Klein was keeping the piano for his niece, Natalie, whom he hadn't seen since the war, but he was still hoping would turn up. In the meantime, he didn't mind my grandfather playing the piano. The customers liked it.

Joe had a different routine after work. He would go and have a drink in a pool hall and hustle games before he walked to his small apartment to sleep it off until the next shift. He was saving to open his own bakery. Joe believed in the American dream. One day, Joe showed up to work with a tattoo of the American eagle on his bicep.

My grandfather was shocked. "Jews can't have tattoos," he said.

"Why the hell not?" Joe asked. He was proud of his tattoo.

"It's not kosher. They won't bury you in the Jewish cemetery."

"Oh shit." It seemed Joe really hadn't been aware of this fact. But then he just shrugged and said, "It doesn't matter. I'm not going to die."


Ring around the rosies.Pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, all fall down.

We see a dead pigeon on the street.

"What's wrong with it?" Elly asks.

"It's dead," I explain.

She thinks about that for a couple weeks.

Then come the questions: When am I going to die? When are you going to die? What happens when we die?


Then she says, "I want to die with you, Daddy."

Breaks my heart.


They were fired without notice.More Abromovics escaped from Europe, and they needed jobs.

"Maybe it's for the best," said my Grandpa.

"Yeah, the best for the Abromovics," said Joe.

"No, I mean for you too. You've been talking about opening your own bakery."

"Yes, but I'm not ready. I haven't saved enough yet."

"Well, what if you took a partner?"

"What do you mean?"

"I've been saving some money myself."

"You rascal you. You never said anything. How much do you got?"

It turned out my grandfather had saved twice as much as Joe with all his pool hall winnings. He'd been living off bread from the bakery, renting a tiny living space just big enough for a bed, with a common shower in the hallway, and he never bought new clothes or anything else.

"You little rascal," Joe said again laughing.


"You fucking bitch."

"I told you never to call me a beech."

"Yeah, you told me a lot of things, baby. You told me you loved me. What was it the green card?"

"Fuck you. You theenk I married you for the green card?"

"I don't know what to theenk. It sure wasn't for my money or my looks."

"Oh, now you gonna make fun of my accent. You used to be sweet. Things were different." Now she was crying. The baby started crying, too. "We were young," she whispers.

It's hard to hate a woman when she's crying. Maybe it was me. Maybe I made her a bitch. Maybe she was just too young. Maybe we were both too young. But, she sure did some bitchy things to me. She's a good mother, though. I should be thankful.


Joe couldn't let it rest.He rounded up five or six of his weightlifting buddies, walked into the bakery, and beat the shit out of the Abromovic brothers. Only things got a little of hand. There were a lot of those Abromovics there at the time, and they were fighting back, or trying to. All they really did was piss off this group of Jewish hoods, and several Abromovics ended up in the hospital.

Joe woke up my grandfather in the middle of the night at his apartment. He was holding a motorcycle helmet and a traveling bag.

"I'm leaving Abie. I came to give you your money back."

"Where you going?" my grandfather asked still sleepy eyed.

"Los Angeles."

"What happened? Abromovic?"

"Yeah, things got out of hand."

"You couldn't leave it alone, huh?" said my grandfather with a slight note of reproach. He was disappointed.

"No, I couldn't, Abe."

"You need anything?"

"Yeah, I need you to come to L. A. and start that bakery with me."

"I like Brooklyn," Grandpa said.

Then, they shook hands and Joe set off on his journey.


A bomb explodes at the Olympics.At first, I want to read the story, but I can't concentrate. What more do I need to know anyway? A bomb exploded, right? They're blaming it on some security guy. I like to wait a decade or so until the details are clear. Then, maybe I'll watch a documentary. You can trust them sometimes. You can't trust the papers.

Besides, I can't concentrate. I used to suck up information with my powers of concentration. I used to read a lot. In the second grade, Mrs. Dickenson—that was her name—took me out of the reading group, and I went from Dick and Jane to Stevenson and Twain. I'm not saying I was a genius or anything. I just liked to read, and I went on to read thousands and thousands of books. I went through the novels of writers like Dickens and the Bronte sisters. I read the short-stories, poems and sports columns of Damon Runyon. I went through genres: crime and mystery, sci-fi and utopian, biography and auto-, gothic and historical, drama and comedy. I went through the periods: medieval, renaissance, enlightenment, romantic, Victorian, modern. I guess I got stuck at post-modern—whatever that is—because now I can't read at all. I want to. I just can't concentrate.

Bombs also exploded in London, Paris, Stockholm, New Delhi, Cairo and, of course, Jerusalem. Those are the ones I know about. I look at the Internet a lot. I don't read anything. I already told you, I can't concentrate. Okay, maybe just the headlines. I have the headlines updated every ten minutes. Sometimes, I can't even read the headlines. I look at the pictures. I get tons of e-mail because I belong to various interest groups. I don't read any of it though.

I don't have time for the truth, only the headlines. Who does? The politicians don't have time to explain. The police don't have time to investigate. The reporters don't have time to report. Not the truth. They go with a version that sells. And we buy it. Hey, I'll take my share of the responsibility. I'm not going to dig for the truth. Bomb here, bomb there. Genocide here, genocide there. One side right, one side wrong. But what is right and wrong? It's a million details uneasily summarized. I'll wait, and I advise you to do the same, in the interest of your own sanity, for the documentary that will come out ten years later offering a subtle and nuanced picture of the real truth, and then we can take one night off from sit-coms and game shows and concentrate just a little bit—if we can. The next morning, we can tell our colleagues, if we have any, that we watched an interesting documentary last night. Really? Do tell. Ah ha, is that the way it actually was. Oh, yes, if you'd seen the documentary, you'd understand. It was clear, they proved it, and it was a well-documented documentary, you know, BBC or Sir Richard Attenborough or something British. Anyway, remember the mad Olympic bomber? Wasn't him. Didn't do it. His life destroyed. Nobody cared. I don't care. I only read the headlines.

"Why don't you read the paper anymore?" Anita asks in a tone not of curiosity but of total accusation.

"Just give me the fucking comics and the sports," I reply in as sweet a tone as anyone possibly could. "I'll read the Internet at work."


The police arrested my grandfather for the assault.The Abromovics positively identified him. Luckily, so did half a dozen other people at Klein's Deli where he had been at the time of the fight, playing the piano as he did every afternoon at that time. But he did spend the night in a jail cell. As the police were taking the handcuffs off, he noticed a woman handing over a wallet she'd found on the street. She had round brown eyes that my grandfather later said were the size of quarters but became the size of half-dollars as she spoke and her face became more animated.

"I only opened it to look for ID," she said.

My grandfather followed her out of the station. He followed her into the subway. He wasn't following her. He was just going the same way. But he wasn't sorry; he couldn't take his eyes off her. She glanced at him nervously and pulled her purse tight against her bosom. She was concentrating so much on the purse that she forgot her plastic bag when she got off. He followed her with it calling out, but of course, she just started walking faster and then running. He looked in the bag and saw that it was just bread from Abromovic's Bakery. He knew she was scared, so he stopped chasing her. Finally, he saw her go into Klein's Deli.

When he walked into Klein's, she was playing the piano. Must be Natalie, the niece, he thought. He moved towards her slowly with the bread. When she saw him, her fingers jumped off the keyboard, and she walked briskly over to her uncle. He could hear them whispering and looking up at him. He heard the words, "That's no criminal. That's Abie." And more whispering. Then she looked up at him with a smile that made him weak.


Now, accompany me if you will to Los Angeles, September 5, 1985: The Night of the Wild Hamburgers. I am a bit overweight. The lovely Anita Bonita is supposedly visiting her mother in Costa Rica. I miss her, and I do what many people do when they are down. I eat. There is a price war on at the hamburger places in LA, something about poison meat, but my stomach fears nothing. I go to virtually every hamburger joint in the Valley: McDonalds, Burger King, Fat Burger, Foster's Freeze, Carl's Jr., In n'Out Burger, and of course, Tommy's. And you know how it is, you can't order a hamburger without ordering fries. I can't recommend it though. The next morning a hangover would be preferable to what I feel.


After about a week, Abie and Natalie were ready to be married.The only problem was, my grandfather couldn't get a job. Abromovic had had him blacklisted in every bakery in New York City. So, they went to LA to join Joe Weinstein and be partners in his new business. Everything was in place. The whole business deal. Joe had arranged it all, but he had insisted to his other partner that they wait for my grandfather. But when he got to LA, Grandpa backed out. He was that close to being rich. He could have been filthy rich, like Joe. But he got cold feet. He used his money to buy a house instead.


We saw a deer from the helicopter.We were flying high over Death Valley in a tourist helicopter. Elly was on our knees. We hadn't come to the strange colors and formations, yet. There was nothing but smooth, tan-brown sand. Then, we saw it. Graceful. You know a deer—how could I describe it? Anita and I were the only ones who saw it. We didn't say anything. We just held hands. But we both knew we had seen it. At that moment, we were happy. I almost believed it would last forever.


My grandfather could have been co-owner of Oriole cookies.He would have been filthy rich. Instead he bought a house. He bought a little house near Fairfax and Melrose. This was before Fairfax looked like a street in Tel Aviv—it was the Borscht Belt, all Russian Jews—and before Melrose was hip. He just had a little house with a red-brick patio all around it. Like the yellow-brick road in The Wizard of Oz, but red. We used to follow that red-brick road around and around the house, chasing and giggling and hiding from each other. The sun would be shining. We could smell Grandma's cholent, and we could hear Grandpa inside playing the piano, classical mostly, something fast, melodic and uplifting. Damn he was good. How can someone be so good and still only be almost great?