I have a very good memory, always have. Inherited apparently from my father, z”l; who said he remembers being held as a baby in his mother’s arms. My big brother would affectionately rib him about it and say: “Dad, you were probably not a baby, as an adult you barely reached 5’6”, you were older but still fit in your mother’s arms”. My brother was 6’2”, he and I had the same mother, but he had a different biological father; but that’s another story. My father’s certainty of the memory was total. His mother, my grandmother Chana, was around for him for only a few years. As he describes it, she was a victim of the Influenza epidemic during WW I when my father was a little boy of 4 or 5. I don’t claim to have my father’s memory, or really know how it is with others. My memories are very visual, stills and on-going action scenes, some silent, audio and things said are included when it’s a part of the memory; smells, tastes and touch very often as well. If it was a big or important event, and I appreciated it as such as it was occurring, I can recall my thoughts and feelings at the time.
I suppose I am a Memory Snob. Objectivity and veracity are paramount to me with no secondary revisions allowed; so if I write it, it was.
The memory starts with me on the bus to school; it was 1964, making me 10 years old plus a month or so. I don’t remember it being really cold outside, but it must have been well into the Fall judging by the hats and coats on the passengers in the pretty full, starting to get steamy bus, and the hat and winter coat I was already wearing. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember being cold? Heavy, battleship gray, menacing clouds were coming in low and fast shoving aside the white cottony puffs. In a blink they would part for a few seconds enabling the sunlight to transform the dull into the bright and reveal a sky-blue sky even through the windows of the bus. I knew about battleship gray because of all the WW II movies I watched on our black and white TV and all the plastic model kits in the toy store. I also remember saying good bye to the blue sky and hoping that I would get to school before it starts to rain. It was about 07:40 in the morning of what I’m pretty sure was a Monday. In spite of the dark clouds, I remember a sense of the energy and freshness, maybe anticipation that is present at the beginning of the week. The time is nailed down by correlating the time I got on the bus, its position on the route along with the 08:00am start time and my clear memory about being relaxed that I was OK for getting to school on time. Getting to school on time was a serious matter, being late for school was deadly serious. The ride was 9 blocks long, from 41st St. and 13th Ave. to 50th St. and 13th Ave. with 5 Stops. The bus was crowded with adults on the way to work and kids going to either Yeshivah or Catholic School, each with its own dress code. Hats, Yamulkas and tzitzis with any tie on any shirt on one side versus a uniform jacket with the school emblem on the breast pocket, a school tie on a white shirt and either black pants or a plaid skirt on the other; no skirts in Yeshivah. Jewish school girls’ dress code was equally easily identifiable, high collar, sleeves to the wrist, skirts/dresses below the knee and stockings or socks, no skin showing except for head and hands. A kid who went to public school would either walk to the school in his neighborhood or get bused by the Board of Ed. Usually public school kids wore a polo or button shirt without the tie, jeans, sneakers, and maybe even, God protect us, a denim jacket. No sneakers or hoodlum jackets allowed in anybody’s parochial schools.
The bus left the 47th St. Stop, which was the one before mine, crossed 48th St. and then we stopped moving. A bus ride in the city is often Stop and Go, so you don’t pay attention until the time that you Stop exceeds the time that you Go. We were stuck in a traffic jam between 48th and 49th Sts. which was fairly unusual even if it was the morning rush hour on one of the main avenues of the neighborhood. Being in time for school and being relaxed about being in time for school did not include this hold-up. I did not own a watch so when I needed to know what time it was I would look at someone else’s wrist or at a clock in a store. I knew precious minutes were passing and we were not moving. The bus driver then made an announcement; the police had blocked off both directions of 13th Ave and nobody is going anywhere until they say so and he doesn’t know when that will be. Looking out through the front windows and seeing all the cop cars, their blue lights flashing and twirling, it was obvious that something happened or maybe even was still going on at the corner of 49th St. Then we heard the siren; more cops? This must be serious. The siren got louder and louder echoing off the avenue’s apartment building walls and then we saw that it wasn’t more police but an ambulance coming to the scene from 50th St. trying to turn left on to 13th Ave to get to 49th St. The cars standing in both directions on the avenue started to inch, each to its own side, trying to create a lane in the middle for the ambulance. We could see all these maneuvers through the front windows of our bus; the blue lights of the cop cars were still twirling, the red lights on the ambulance and siren now more deafening and the cops waving and pointing at the standing cars to get over to the side. This was all well and good and very interesting, but it was taking much too much time.
On the one hand, you would think that there could be no better excuse for being late than the police closed the street and the bus I was on was stuck; the more time it took, the more the Blessing. On the other side of it, I understood from experience that you could really never know how any teacher would respond and react, Mrs. Koppelmann in particular. Often the response depended upon how many came to the door after 08:00, how many blasphemers and heretics would be interrupting her lesson. In these rare situations, when she was forced to stop the study, best to be in a crowd, she usually didn’t take on more than two kids at a time. Mrs. Koppelmann was shriveled like a rotten prune, a violent and sadistic wicked old witch who beat the shit out of 4th graders on an almost daily basis. She could turn on you in a second with a slap or a pinching and twisting vice grip of the ear between fingers from the hand of a skeleton. Looking around the bus I recognized a few kids from my school, but only one or two from my class, not enough personal protection. The bus was starting to get really hot and uncomfortable and then the driver proved himself to be a mensch. He opened the doors and said that anybody who wants to get out can do so since it looks like it is going to take a while before the traffic starts moving again. I thanked him sincerely, not only did he relieve my worry of being late for the lesson at 08:00, but I would be able to see what the whole thing was about as I walked by since it was on my side of the street. As I neared the corner of 49th St. I could see that the police had cleared the intersection for the ambulance which was still making an incredible amount of noise to the point where one of the cops was now waving, signaling and shouting at the ambulance driver to turn off the siren, which he finally did.
The ambulance turned into 49th St. in front of me as I got to the corner. The police car that was stopped at the beginning of the street, had backed-up to make room for the ambulance, and then moved forward again to the same blocking position after the ambulance passed. Whatever happened, was only a few yards from 13th Ave. That’s where the police were congregated and where the ambulance stopped. The policemen standing on the sidewalk had cleared a spot next to the curb and the driver backed up putting the ambulance in at an angle to the curb so the back of the ambulance faced the sidewalk. As I crossed 49th St. I saw that the police were standing on the sidewalk about 20 feet up the block in front of the dark red brick wall of the apartment building that occupied the corner. The entrance to the building was another 10 -12 feet behind them and then the other side of the building. As I reach the opposite corner, the side of the street where the action is, I can see that there is no garden, no fence or rail in front of the building. The wall probably has the building lobby, meaning nobody’s apartment on the inside of it, and on the outside a 3 and a half box wide clear sidewalk. The apartment windows started up above on the first floor, and there was only one small basement window which opened up at sidewalk level. I thought what a great court this was and the kids who lived here were lucky; I had a similar situation on my block so I could immediately appreciate the benefits. I looked up and saw that it was basically a pretty boring, monochrome structure with no balconies or fire escapes on the street side, no stone ornamentation or carvings around the windows or at the roof, just 7 or 8 stories of dark red bricks with all the windows in rows up and down the façade; looking at them from the angle of the sidewalk, they looked more like mirrors than windows of clear glass. Nothing special about it, it was one of the standard types of building that were located at many of the corners at most of the intersections of avenues and streets in the city.
I saw the ambulance attendant get out of the front of the ambulance on the passenger side and go to the back to open the back doors. Another ambulance guy or maybe the driver came out the back carrying a long black cloth something with wood handles which after a second I realized was a folded up stretcher, and they headed over to the police. Something didn’t jive. At first I didn’t understand, then I realized what was strange or missing from the scene, what I expected and what you normally see on TV police and medical shows; nobody was excited, nobody was rushing or hurrying, there was no sense of urgency or emergency.
I was at the corner, and the clock in the window of the drugstore that was the first store on the avenue read 07:52. I was gold for time, I had only one block until I reached school and my classroom was on the first floor. A couple of policemen were at the corner of the building next to the drugstore window directing the pedestrians to continue on 13th Ave in either direction or if the desire was to go up 49th St. to cross the street and use the opposite sidewalk. The police were standing mostly with their backs to the avenue, clearly interested themselves in what the scene was presenting and at the same time making sure that no civilians came to the sidewalk between the corner and the circle of police and ambulance attendants. One of the cops would turn around and say to the air in front of him: “Keep Moving” and he would turn back to the scene and then the other cop would do the same and announce: “Nothing to See Here”. What a stupid thing to say! There was obviously something very interesting to see! A couple of classmates walking past stopped next to me to see what was going on. I thought that this was not a good thing, 3 of us will attract the policemen’s attention. Fortunately after a few seconds, urging me to join them, and avoid the likely torture and pain at her boney hands if you were late, they left. And then, just like the clouds moving and jostling each other in the sky and coming apart letting the sunlight through, so what seemed to me, with the same happenstance and lack of intention on their part, the cops on the corner separated a few feet from each other and I could see the whole empty sidewalk up to the area where the police and ambulance guys were standing. At first, through and around the 8 legs, 4 blue and 4 white, 2 police, 2 medics standing there, I saw what there was to see, what all the mishegas was about. There was a man lying on the sidewalk. The first thing I noticed was that he was tall and lanky and he looked it, with long legs and long arms, over 6’ tall. My estimate is accurate and easily done by counting the 3 foot square boxes of the sidewalk that he lay across. Call it good karma or maybe bad but a moment after the cops on the corner moved aside, the police and medics standing near the man lying on the pavement all moved to his other side giving me a totally unhindered view of the scene which was completely and totally fucking amazing, unbelievable and bizarre. As the saying goes, if I hadn’t seen it myself… Something that looked like it was straight out of or rather rejected from a Twilight Zone, Outer Limits episode or a Lon Chaney, Jr. / Vincent Price B minus Horror Hour.
It was instantaneously clear that the man lying on the pavement was dead and that he committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the apartment building. This wasn’t a mugging gone bad. We didn’t have many of those yet, a few years later, we had many. Nor was it a ‘hit’, we did have one or two of those; we were in Crazy Joey Gallo’s territory. There were no detectives, no ‘unmarked’ police cars, only uniforms in black and whites. You could see by the relaxed nature of all the professionals at the scene, that nobody thought the victim was murdered by being tossed from the roof or even that he fell.
In a way, I am used to dead people. I grew up with a lot of ghosts. I am the child of Holocaust survivors. In addition to the individual memorial candles lit for specific people on specific dates throughout the year, we had quite a few a year. Three times a year, when the Yizkor prayer is said, my parents would light memorial candles for every victim. The candles were in glasses with wax to burn for at least 24 hours. After the memorial was over and the wax melted away, these glasses were washed and used for years as our daily drinking glasses. The bottom of the glass had a horseshoe logo design in it. What was the lucky part? Seeing the horseshoe, means you’re alive and the candle was lit for someone else? To my discredit, I don’t know the names of all the victims or the total number of candles but I do remember that the glasses covered a whole kitchen counter. And if you went into the kitchen in the middle of the night when all the lights were off and the candles were lit, it looked like a God dammed forest fire.
But this was Death, you should forgive the expression, in the flesh; up close and very personal, only 20 feet away. This was my first dead body! Of course, I didn’t know it then, that the next dead person I would see about 5 years later would be Blanche, z’’l, our upstairs tenant lying on her kitchen floor because an embolism traveled from a wound in her leg up to her heart and stopped it.
I had seen enough TV shows to remember some of the jargon, the ambulance was the ‘meat wagon’, and the victim was a Johnny Weissmuller. The expressions; took a nose dive, did a header, came screaming to mind. Johnny the Jumper was lying on his back in the middle of the sidewalk, his arms at his sides with his feet closer to the curb. He was fully dressed, with a sort of long trench coat which wasn’t buttoned closed and had fanned out from either side of his body as he lay on top of it, it looked like he was wearing a cape. The only thing that was missing was his head. The body had no head, no face, no chin, nothing; his body ended at his shirt and coat collars. I imagined that for the few seconds between the roof and the sidewalk, the aerodynamics of his long thin body with the raincoat flapping behind acting as a spoiler/stabilizer, you should forgive the expression; worked for him. He must have looked like a character out of a comic book or cartoon or a guided missile from the same cartoon. He made such a perfect one-point landing! I wouldn’t be surprised if he originally had a big head and the weight of it on top of his skinny body just pulled him whoosh into the ground at Mach V to obliterate everything above the neck. I scanned the whole area of the sidewalk around the body and could not see any pieces of his head or his face. I didn’t see anyone pick anything up, I hoped no stray dogs or cats got there before the police. I looked around but there was just what seemed to be a small puddle of blood where the head should have been. This has always been a mystery to me! And then it got even better, or worse. Holy Shit! I said Holy Shit to myself about 5 times because about 2-3 feet from the body’s left shoulder, meaning 2-3 feet closer to me, just squatting there on the pavement, looking exactly, but exactly what you expect it to look like, was the poor guy’s brain. The utterly astounding, outer worldly, incredible thing was that the brain looked complete and intact. Somehow, the force, the angle, the wind velocity, who the fuck knows, of the impact cracked his head open, probably more like blew his head open and ejected the brain out before it got crushed to smithereens along with its container under the weight of the falling body multiplied by gravity. The brain was shaped like a mound or a ball that was cut in half, off-white in color with the entire surface covered in small folds, contours and crevices. It looked like all the brains that all the Dr. Frankensteins implanted into all the Monsters. Unlike with the original good Dr., the problem here was, all you could ever shout was; It’s Not Alive, It’s Not Alive. Many years later, I witnessed brain surgery. The surgeon used a circular saw to cut around the top of the skull. When he removed the cap of bone he had fashioned, there was an audible pop as the cranial cavity lost its vacuum. There must have been a hell of a loud POP on 49th St. that morning.
The ambulance guys had put a sheet over the body and opened up the stretcher on the ground next to it. The police on the corner now moved next to their car at the corner. I looked at the clock in the drugstore window and saw that Mrs. Koppelmann would be starting the lesson now, but I really didn’t care about that, was ready for what might come, I had to see this through to the end. I was already working on my defense and was actually encouraged because I realized that since I was early for school and my bus got stopped close by, there must be more late students in other buses further back down the avenue in both directions, it was going to be OK.
And then it started to rain. The dark heavy clouds started to release huge rain drops, each one making a big splat when it hit the ground, the size of the drops was impressive. It wasn’t really officially raining yet, but it sure looked like it was going to start real soon and it would be a serious downpour. Every few seconds another drop would fall, hitting me, the sidewalk, the sheet covering the body, the police car, etc…Now things got urgent! Nobody wanted to get caught in the rain, especially not the guys with the stiff. The ambulance guys placed the draped corpse on the stretcher, lifted the stretcher with the body off the ground and carried him into the back of the meat wagon. It didn’t seem like it was at all heavy for them, I guess it’s true that the head is the single heaviest part of the body. The same ambulance guy who first opened the back doors now closed them and went quickly to his seat; the driver started the engine and turned on his red lights, but thank God, not the siren. The cops that were alongside the body got into their car ready to lead the entourage up 49th St. The cops who stood on the corner next to me were already back in their car with the engine running, blue lights flashing ready to follow the ambulance up 49th St. I turned around to see that 13th Ave had been opened up and traffic was beginning to move in both directions. I saw classmates running to school, I looked again at the Rexall clock in the window; 08:12, not too much grace left, if any?
It was all coming to a close very quickly, too quickly. The ambulance moved away from the curb and started up the street with a police car in front and one on its tail. Then, more screaming in my head; the brain. They left the fucking brain on the sidewalk and drove away. How? It would have done no good to shout; the Brain! the Brain!, they were all gone! The meat wagon guys were probably going to be in really big trouble when they deliver the corpse and the doctor, coroner asks: “OK, Where’s the head, where’s the brain? You forgot the brain on the sidewalk? The victim has no head or brain and is probably still smarter than you two!, What’s your excuse? It started to rain”.
And then it was over. Traffic and pedestrians were moving in all directions, it even stopped raining and the threat of the storm had passed for the moment. No more police, no more mishegas, only a guy’s brain on the sidewalk. As if it couldn’t get any better or worse, which here are the same; what you did not want to see happen, did. A lady in very high spike heels came walking without paying attention and proceeded to put one of those stiletto heels into the brain, she didn’t turn her head, or look down, she didn’t miss a stride. It was horrible and terrible and amazing. I giggled to myself when I thought that there is a good chance that if she knew what was on her shoe and how it got there, she would faint, vomit or die herself. The little basement window opened halfway and behind it the face of who must have been the building super appeared. Without leaving the safety of the basement, he began to hose down the sidewalk where the body had lain. The bottom of the window was at pavement level so with the force of the water at its maximum, rinsing the blood into the gutter wasn’t a problem. The super then turned his hose on the area where the brain was and after two or three seconds, it lifted and began to float on the water. The strong stream of water pushed the brain along the sidewalk just like a paper boat floating in a pond until it sort of rolled off the curb one hemisphere at a time and came to rest in the gutter, still completely intact, except for a hole from the lady’s heel which you really couldn’t see, adjacent to the curb, just behind the back wheel of a car that was parked there. How fucking sad! How fucking real! The brain will become chopped liver once the car backs up to get out of the parking spot, and that will really be the end of it. What’s the point to anything if in the end your brain gets squished by a car tire along with and like so much dog shit? How poignant and mundane! And what difference does it make to the price of tea in China? I could not wait around for the finale and really had no desire to see it happen.
As I turned away from 49th St. heading to my school, I saw that it was 08:23; and I could see no classmates among the people walking. I wasn’t not afraid, it’s just that I realized that you can’t argue with a fact. Dead is dead and 08:24 was the time and there was nothing I could do about it, I was not going to run. I was screwed, but at least for a few minutes, I had a different perspective. What could Mrs. Satan do to me? Try to insult and embarrass me in front of the class, rough me up or hit me while insulting me; take your best shot! Water off a duck’s back. I remember thinking that I was pretty tough for a 10 year old, that I wasn’t squeamish, bodies and blood and brain don’t bother me. Years in the future the facility served me well as a combat infantry medic.
The walk to the Yeshivah enabled what was for me, a few moments of clarity. I understood that you could stand on your head and whistle Dixie, but when you’re dead, you can’t stand on your head unless your body is tied in that position and/or whistle Dixie. I don’t know the name of the poor man that became a headless piece of meat, never tried to find out, and never lit a candle for him. I used to think what a terrible, terrible sin or mistake he made, and therefore his judgement and punishment were so immediate and brutal. You see, this is what happens when you don’t use your head; two assholes put you in the ground without your brain. Did he sleep on Sunday night, wake up in the morning, get dressed and go to the roof, or did he spend all night awake in his apartment or on the roof in anguish and terror? The desperation of it was intense and overwhelmingly sad. I believe in the soul, but if the biology isn’t there, it seems, neither is the soul. It’s a match made in Heaven between Heaven and Earth that Heaven Only Knows how this mixed marriage works.
I learned again but for the first time not from my parents, about the fragility and finality of life, my own included; here today, gone tomorrow. Today, I have what’s called a ‘2 by 4 Clause‘ in my Will. If I get to a ‘bad’ place, with no way to get out, my Will directs that an eighteen inch long 2 by 4 oak plank be applied with maximum prejudice or an heroin overdose.
I never told my folks. They had been around a lot of death in their lives and I wanted to spare them the knowledge of it, and that their 10 year old also knows. My parents tried to teach me to be practical, I did not speak because what did it matter and what good would it do? Would it make me feel better, would it make their lives better in any way, would it help him in any way? So to make it easier to think about, you chalk it up to some people really don’t like Mondays, and even if I make a joke about it, what’s he going to do, haunt me? Without a brain, he’ll never find me; I hope. What I do hope is what I hoped for back then, that he Rests In Peace.
I got to the school building and saw that there were more students and teachers out of their classrooms in the halls than there should have been at almost a half hour after the bell, I was encouraged. I saw that my classroom door was open which was a very positive sign. The doorway to the classroom was at the front, in line with the Medusa’s desk. She wasn’t at her desk, her broom and pointy hat were there, but she wasn’t. I ran to my desk, took off my hat and coat, unpacked my briefcase and took out the books that I needed. My classmates told me that she arrived only a few minutes before me and she went directly to the principal’s office. How strange? The teacher went to the principal’s office for being late. She came back to the class a moment later, saw that all the desks were occupied, closed the classroom door, sat at her desk, told us what we would be learning today and began the lesson. At first I didn’t pay much attention to the lesson, it was the Torah portion dealing with the attempted murder, I mean sacrifice of Isaac. WOW!