I was born in a place that some people call Saint Jewish Park. A name some wise-ass anti-Semite bestowed on my town because of its too large, 11 percent, Jewish population. The town’s real name is Saint Louis Park, but as far as I know no one living or dead has ever known who St. Louis was, or whether there was ever a park that bore his name. One thing we did know was that there was a smoke-spewing, eyesore of a creosote plant a block from the senior high school and no more than a hundred yards from the Little League field. It was a blackened, sludge-filled expanse that covered a full eighty acres at its zenith in the mid-sixties.
Creosote, a smelly tar-like substance, was used to coat telephone poles and railroad ties as recently as the early eighties. The health risks, which were well known, were assumed to be outweighed by the employment benefits the plant brought to the hapless denizens of Saint Louis Park. Years after the city finally began phasing out the operation in the seventies, scores of men and women had already come down with various forms of cancer. “It’s not if, but when” was a sardonic little mantra you’d hear growing up. That’s not to say that the creosote plant alone defined Saint Louis Park. If you grew up Jewish in my hometown, you might have felt that a dark, barely concealed Jew-hatred had a hand in characterizing the place. I know that’s harsh but we’re talking about feelings.
For some it was the Jews themselves that made our fair city known through their stunning accomplishments. People like filmmakers, Ethan and Joel Coen, the Pulitzer Prize winning NYT journalist Thomas Friedman, Senator Al Franken, best selling author Peggy Orenstein, and scores of other well known musicians and artists. It’s worth noting as well, that if the wants and needs of the good folks of Saint Louis Park, who promoted the restrictive covenants in place at the time my parents were looking to buy a home were heeded, the city might well have been defined in a less positive way. Something like: Saint Louis Park, Home Of The Best Darn Creosote In The Upper Mid-west!
The sense of being “other” was hard to avoid when you were sent off to Talmud Torah after elementary school or when you prayed at the B’nai Emet Synagogue and not the Peace Presbyterian Church. Most times this wasn’t a problem at all and you never thought about it. But just as when your heart is functioning properly you don’t think about it either. One brush with a heart attack though, and you’ll be thinking about it all the time. That’s how it was for people with names like Goldetsky, Rosenblatt, Seigelbaum, or Himmelman.
Without a doubt, the vast majority of my experiences with people growing up in Saint Louis Park were positive. The tricky thing with memory though, is that without your even knowing it, the few bad experiences, the ones where someone says, “you fuckin’ kike” and punches you in the face, or calls you a nigger and needs to wash their hands after you’ve ‘touched’ them, or pulls down your pants in the locker room because they suspect you’re gay, or laughs at you and calls out “hey crip” because you wear metal braces on your legs…
These kinds of memories act like black ink in an otherwise clear glass of water; even a few drops is enough to make it look too dark to drink.
Fifth grade is beginning in less than a week. The summer has been a long one but with the new school year looming, perhaps not long enough. At the end of our block lives a boy one year older and a decade more experienced than any other kid my age. His name is John Hartweig and he’s always been first at everything. First to touch a girl’s breast, first to smoke a cigarette, and the first to own Hot Wheels, the model cars he’d douse in rubbing alcohol and send careening down their narrow orange tracks in blue flames, once nearly burning our basement to ashes.
This August marks one of the driest summers on record, we wake up to heat and we lay down to heat. The only good thing I can say about it is that the mosquitos, which usually make the evening hours between seven and ten o’clock unbearable have gone wherever it is they go when it becomes too hot to suck our blood.
It is on one particularly dry August night that John shows my friends, Doug Kaufman and Mike Hope, and me, something that I can only liken to an object pulled from a beautiful dream. I dare say that this wondrous thing is at least on par with the dog-eared copy of Juggs that he took the three of us to the woods behind the Peace Presbyterian Church to have a long (four-hours plus) look at the week before last. John calls this thing a Flame Flyer. Not to lessen the Flame Flyer’s magic, only to better explain it for you: The Flame Flyer is essentially a miniature hot air balloon, made from of a plastic garbage bag, four extra long drinking straws, several sewing pins, and a couple dozen-birthday candles. It was a pyromaniac’s dream. The design was simple:
- Double the length of each straw by inserting one end into another straw.
- Crisscross the two lengthened straws into a T-shape and hold them in place with masking tape.
- Push a row of pins upwards from the bottom of the straws until the pointy end is sticking through.
- Carefully push the birthday candles onto the pins.
- Secure the T-shaped straws with the candles in the mouth of a large plastic bag,
- Light the candles and watch the bag go slowly upwards as the hot air begins to rise.
- Think nothing of the danger this is likely to cause.
To see this luminescent orb floating into the darkness of an overheated Minnesota night was nothing short of breathtaking. It was so magical in fact, that none of us observers, (me, Doug or Mike) and certainly not John Hartweig himself, had any concern for what might happen if the Flame Flyer were to have gotten stuck in say, a treetop, or landed on a shingle roof, or in a pile of dried leaves in someone’s backyard.
Where there is potential for great beauty, the pursuit of art must prevail at all cost apparently, no matter what the consequences. Fortunately for us the Flame Flyer touched down after a twelve-minute flight at the edge of Willow Pond, an affectionate name for a gutter runoff at the edge of our local softball field.
In our neighborhood there are two orders of humanity. People who might look essentially the same, who might wear the same clothes and go to the same schools, but in fact, inhabit totally different universes. They are the Jews and the non-Jews. It’s never been clear to me if John Hartweig has ever made this distinction. To be fair, it’s hard to describe.
By my reckoning, the Jews are a people living in their own heads, inhabiting a place of thought alone. 2700 years of exile, of running from Crusade to Crusade, from pogrom to pogrom, culminating with the holocaust, has made the Jew by his very nature, hyper vigilant and super-aware of threats and dangers of all kinds. It’s also made him reliant upon, and therefore perhaps, extra skilled at life-saving improvisation and ingenuities of all kinds. Experience has put into the Jewish DNA a certain tendency towards living in an inward directed world of imagination, replete as well, with a debilitating overabundance of anxiety and second-guessing.
The non-Jews on the other hand, seem to be far better rooted in the natural world. They are more awake to the very stuff of the physical dimension. They’re at least a hundred times braver, calmer, and enviably to me at any rate, a thousand times more impetuous. I believe it is this impetuousness that leads John Hartweig to suggest that we walk to the Peace Presbyterian Church and draw to our heart’s content on the rear door of the chapel. “Everyone does it,” he says. John and I arrive with our colored Marks-a-lots and although I see no other drawings on the door, I simply assume as I always do, that John knows best.
I begin my drawing with a passionate red arc starting at the heavy brass door handle and moving up the door as high as I can reach. I take out the black permanent marker and use it to outline the big, colorful shapes I’ve made. I look over at John. He’s drawing as well, huge dicks and tits and writing the words “FUCK and “CUNT and the hyphenated, super-invective: “SHIT-FUCK.” I laugh aloud at John’s handiwork, full of pride for my good fortune, for how lucky I am just to know a kid this fearless. As I’m about to add a flourish of green to my own masterpiece, John screams, “Run!” And run he does, like a fucking gazelle.
Before I can mutter, “huh?” the church janitor grabs me by the arm and yanks me into the Minister’s office. I’m trying my best not to cry as I wait for the Minister to arrive, knowing beyond a doubt, that I’ve done something of colossal stupidity; something for which I may be beaten or even killed. Finally, the Minister enters and through tears that I’m wholly incapable of holding back, I explain that I didn’t realize people weren’t allowed to draw on the door. “I thought the door was for self-expression,” I say, self expression being one of the loftiest virtues in our family, thanks to my mother. The Minister seems more disgusted than angry when he calls her to come and take me home.
Self-expression, the need to speak and to be heard, to sing and to be listened to, to amuse and most of all, to be seen… All of it, just to make sure the big black bear doesn’t break through the screen door and eat me while everyone’s heads are turned.
More often than not my need to express myself went too far.
My friend Doug Kaufman and I are playing darts at Murray Yablonski’s. Dishes are piled up in the kitchen, dirty underwear, (men’s, women’s, and children’s) are strewn about the basement floor. Murray can’t find a pencil to keep score of our dart game. “No problem,” he tells us as he carves the first of our scores into the drywall with the tip of a dart. It’s so primitive at Murray’s house. So utterly repulsive, and yet, somehow, so electrifying. I feel free to do anything I want here.
Several weeks ago my older brother Paul, who’s always doing the coolest things, set fire to a paper bag filled with dog crap and flung it onto the Yablonski’s back porch with a tennis racket. I wondered if he’d done it as part of some ritual or simply to signify the Yablonski’s sordid otherness.
Now, after the dart game Murray is hustled off to the dentist and Doug and I sit and talk in the small wooden playhouse in the Yablonski’s backyard. We discuss our plans for the rest of the summer. The proposals are modest: ride our bikes to Sol’s Supperette and buy apple flavored Bubs Daddy, play catch with a whiffle ball, look for Doug’s father’s Playboy; the one we lost track of last summer and have endeavored to find ever since.
We decide options one and three are the most interesting and somewhere around lunchtime I suggest to Doug that a totemic offering of our own is in order, something along the lines of what my brother did last week. And so, with a ginger sun hanging high in the noon air, I bear down and let loose a terrible stool in the middle of the playhouse. Doug and I laugh until our stomach muscles get sore.
I sleep peacefully through the night, sensing that some great creative work has been accomplished. Even if I don’t know precisely what it’s import is, or what it’s effect on the world might be I know that I’ve achieved some measure of greatness, at least in the eyes of Doug Kaufman, my best friend in the whole world.
It’s early morning now and my mother wakes me out of a sound sleep: “Peter, did you make a BM in the Yablonski’s playhouse?”
I walk with her down the grassy hill to the Yablonski’s. The whole family, even little Rhoda for whom the playhouse was built, watches as I come bearing a pail of soapy water, some newspaper, and a garden trowel.
It took me about three weeks before I was able to show my face around the neighborhood again, but I was restless and bored, and soon I was back playing with Marvin and Doug, and Mike Hope on what would become one of the best days in my life up to that point.
The kickball game stops abruptly as Marvin Yablonski receives the heavy rubber ball square in the nuts. He goes down on his knees and bawls like an infant. The rest of us laugh without shame or pity as thin clouds drift behind the water tower. As we lay on our backs under the Kaufman’s gargantuan oak calling Marvin all sorts of merciless names, there comes what at first appears to be a foreboding black thundercloud. Strange to each of us because there’s not the scent of rain or the green darkening sky that always precedes a menacing storm. But as it rises and looms above us, the cloud reveals itself to be something else entirely. We boys become suddenly serious. There is a terrible spaceship plated with massive iron scales flying directly overhead.
There are no parents here to tell us what to do or where to run, and so propelled by mortal fear, we race through the backyards, so sure our deaths are imminent that even Marvin Yablonski who’d been crying non-stop for the last fifteen minutes, gets up off his knees, and makes his mad, girlie-run for safety. The spaceship floats overhead. As we run, each of us clings to his own fearsome image of the grotesque aliens at the ship’s helm.
We are giddy and petrified by how clever they are as they track and study us, no doubt, preparing to fire their lasers at our tender hides at any moment. And yet, quite unexpectedly, in the midst of our sheer terror, comes for me at any rate, the exquisite sensation of pure elation. All of us ballplayers are running full out now, filled with an adrenaline-stoked fear and certain that we will be blasted out of our Keds in an instant by Martian x-rays. But in spite of our fear I am as ecstatically happy now as I’ve been at any point in my short life.
As the spaceship drifts safely past we lie on our backs, panting. None of us but Marvin can read yet, he thinks he can make out the two words printed in huge letters on the side of the ship:
Good and Year.