Biyalis and Salsa
Last night I went to the boathouse in the park. It seems I go to the boathouse a lot but it’s the only place now where there are people and music and the possibility of dancing, even if it is dancing alone on the wooden dock. The slender singer in a dark dress does“Summertime”, Ma’s favorite song, while the sax croons up and down behind her. My hips swish slow circles side to side. I watch the movement travel through me, til my ribs echo it, my arms lift and trace it, and finally, it leaves through my fingers into the dark air. The musicians come every night and promise to keep coming until this is over or it snows.
The water next to us is covered with a thick green blanket of duckweed cause no electric boats are touring folks around breaking up that scum. Not even a spot of clear water. Yet, when ducks swim through it slides aside. Really, it’s just a fragile covering on the surface. Still it’s accumulating and accumulating. Lakes are always changing, turning gradually into swamp. I guess if this goes on long enough we will lose that water for good.
A black dog came over and sniffed me. He smelled my dog Sonny. I patted him and rubbed his belly. He went back to his owner and started barking at the water. “He’s barking at the buoy.” the lady said. I saw he was barking at the big orange buoy, it’s sides streaked with duckweed. He stared at it and barked and barked. I wondered what he wanted. Maybe to go get it and drag it back to the dock and keep it safe. Sonny dragged me back to shore when we went swimming in a lake. I’m a great swimmer but he got scared.
The lady next to her told me about a night she’d come to the boathouse and a dog had run right out onto the water. “It took two people to pull him out. That dog was so surprised he fell in…”
“Because the duckweed makes the water look solid in the dark!” I interrupted her.
I couldn’t help it. I’m always thinking to myself how solid it looks. The dog must have thought he was running onto green grass. I worry that a toddler will toddle right into it.
But it was a six year old girl who made me hold my breath that night. She didn’t go near the water but she came over to the chain-link fence next to the dock and began climbing across it holding the metal rod above, I was afraid she would flip over and hit her head. “Be careful.” I said softly. She ignored me. It was not worth her looking up. Suddenly I realized what she was doing was not at all dangerous. Woof woof. Not so long ago I dodged Manhattan traffic on my bike. There were places I wanted to go. Since the middle of March, I just do endless loops around Prospect Park.
Today, I finally broke my routine and biked over the Manhattan bridge. It spit me out onto a nice safe bike lane in Chinatown and I headed north on the Bowery. Whole Foods yelled “gentrification” from the bottom of a huge apartment building as I turned onto East Houston. But further east the buildings became smaller and older. I passed Russ and Daughters, Katz’s delicatessen, and then the Parkside Lounge, a nice seedy bar where my friend Julia read poetry last year.
Finally I turned onto Willet Street and found myself biking underneath a giant Bridge. I didn’t know which bridge it was. I’d found a place in New York that was completely unfamiliar. I was searching for the Home of the Sages of Israel, where I’d visited my Zadie as a child. I’d been meaning to find it since I moved to New York 40 years ago at age 18, but before March, there were always other things I wanted to do more.
“It’s just for Talmud scholars”, Ma explained back then, giving an air of exclusivity to the place with its old books and old Jews. Google maps said Willet street but when I got there I found a sign renaming it Bialystocker street. Funny. My father’s father came from Bialystock, my mother’s father once lived here on Bialystocker street and when we came to visit him we always bought bialys on our way back to New Jersey.
I recognized the front of the building with its white brick facade. It looked old to me 50 years ago, and today it just looked a little bit older. I peeked through the glass at the lobby. Familiar, but wasn’t there a study room to the left? I remember Zadie’s room. He shared it with another gentleman and his bed was on the far side next to the window. Family photographs and a bottle of schnapps on the dusty windowsill. Ma is sitting close to him. I see his white beard, black yarmulke, and the shiny chain that hangs down from his pocket. He doesn’t speak English but Yiddish always sounds comforting and familiar. I wanted to go in and jog more memories. The guard wouldn’t let me of course, not even with my mask.
Next I google mapped “Bialys”. I had no idea of the name. I just head to the closest hit, but from a block away I could see it was the same place. From the backseat of our 1969 blue Ford with the silver handles, I see Ma jump out to get them while Daddy keeps the car running. “Still hot girls!” Burning our fingers, we’re grabbing the chewy chunks of dough with soft oniony, garlicky centers. Garlic fills the car.
The same smell hits me when I walk in. Right away I notice they moved the bins from the back to the side. Now I can see the baker working. “Excuse me, how long has this place been around?” “Ha! Forever.”, nodding toward the wall he pulls apart a huge wad of the sticky stuff. Then I see the plaque and photos of the old Lower East Side. Turns out this bialy shop is famous. KOSSARS, in giant red letters outside, and inside, the plaque: “Making Bagels and Bialys Since 1936”. But I’d returned at the wrong time of day, these bialys were cold.
I bought a few anyway and headed outside. Two doors down was a pickle store with pickles in barrels: half sours, full sours, pickled tomatoes, pickled mushrooms, pickles peppers. The pickle man lived in the basement of my mother’s tenement. Ma would ride on top of her father’s laundry cart, the queen of East New York. Tiny Essie watched the laundry while he hauled sacks up endless flights of stairs. After the route, he gave her five cents and she would go to the basement and buy a pickle for a nickel. Then she’d sit on the stoop of her house and watch the world go by. I sit in front of Kossar’s red sign and chew my cold bialy. I break off pieces and push them up underneath my mask.
I watch the people on Grand street go by with their faces hidden. They step around me making wide semi circles on the sidewalk. Sometimes they look back and their eyes seem to say, “ Nothing personal! You don’t look infected.”
Seems we are all in the same movie: Aliens Invade New York, where tiny green men force us to hide our faces, stay at home, stare at screens all day, and if we don’t happen to have a boyfriend they day arrive, we have to be celibate too.
This movie just will not end. Opening the door to get coffee in the morning, I see hidden faces and run back to grab my mask. A Facebook post “Salsa On The Pier” and I wonder which train to take before I realize it’s from two years ago and I don’t ride the trains anymore. Masks, warning tape and gates pulled down over restaurants cover up the real city.
I close my eyes…there are my sisters in the blue Ford, the garlicky bialys, and Ma talking Yiddish to Zadie. A moment later my eyes open and my parents are dead, my two sisters live far away. We are always planning to zoom, but… Faceless people walk by, they are clearly stuck in the same movie as me. Strange how the Sages of Israel, the pickle shop and Kossars remain on the Lower East Side. It could be an island outside of time except for the masks and the fact that there is nowhere else to go. It’s a grey Sunday, and I should be dancing salsa at Stepping Out, filling myself up with enough music, men and spicy moves to last a week.
I see the Sunday night salsa crowd. It’s just a bike ride away up on 27th street. I’ve been going there for years and know just the guys I want to dance with. On Wednesday it’s Solas in the East Village, the bar with salsa in the back room and $5 Sangria. Saturday, my dance teacher, Frankie will DJ his own dance at You Should Be Dancing. All his students will come, along with half the salsa dancers in New York because the space is huge and he plays the great old stuff including lots of Boogaloo. I will stay too late, but then Junko and I will split a car service to Brooklyn and she’ll tell me all about her little daughter.
My biyali tastes like cardboard. I spit it out. I throw the rest of them away. No vaccines till the end of the year, or maybe not till next fall. And won’t folks be afraid of reinfection? Studios will close, guys will forget how to lead. I will be even older. I may lose my nerve when it’s finally time to venture out in short skirts, lipstick and heels.
I feel hungry and queasy at the same time. I see my bag of 5 bialys in the green can. The Masbia food bank fills up my facebook feed with pictures of folks lined up for blocks. Shit! I should have…I know kids stuck in their apartments for so many months, they don’t even want to go outside anymore. And they have parents taking care of them. What about the kids stuck in apartments alone while their parents are trying to work or to find work? All those undocumented nannys who lost their jobs when the parents came home for good. What about their hungry kids?
Who cares now if dancing is the last link to my youth? My last link to the hopeful New York I came searching for at 18? Who cares that I have always managed to hold onto it just enough to keep my head above water? Honking, a siren, flashing red lights on Grand street pass my eyes. The lights at Solas near the DJ booth blink colors. I see the shiny shoes, sexy skirts, hip circling dips, and cross body leads. I see the men I know only by their smiles, the touch of their hands and the music running through their bodies. It feels as if it’s still happening. Maybe somewhere, in a secret part of the city, the Aliens have it hidden away. If I knew the right gesture or secret spell, if I offered them a hot garlic biyali smeared with butter, they would let me past this scummy surface.
Judy Schneier is a writer and psychotherapist living and working in Brooklyn. Judy has read extensively at Brooklyn Poets and Sweet Action Poetry Collective. Judy has two sons and a dog.