Do I dare to eat a mango?

I just cubed a mango, which is one of my personal Proustian memory triggers.

In my Senior year of high school, I took the advanced level French course (did we call it French 4 or French 5? I can’t recall). It’s a joke that I even took the course. In my school system, languages were primarily taught via memorization. Whether conjugated verbs or categorized vocabulary for various assumed frequent-use topics (weather, food, transportation), you’d be given a page or three of words to memorize as homework. The next day, you’d have written or spoken drills in class. We even memorized scripted conversations, often echoed back to a tape of “native speakers”:

Bonjour…Bonjour Jean…Bonjour Marie…Bonjour Jean et Marie…Comment va tu?…Pas mal, merci, et toi?…Pas mal, merci.

When there was extemporaneous conversation, the emphasis was on being linguistically correct over expressing your thoughts. From the earliest I can remember, I’ve learned most effectively through context. Even when I was acting, I’d learn my lines better by putting the work up on its feet than by reading the lines over and over to myself. Rote memorization has never been my friend, I lack that magical language-music-math gene, and I grew up in a monolingual environment. Put it all together and you get a miserable language student (though, should I ever run into Jean and Marie, I can successfully say hello and let them know I’m fine, thank you).

Monsieur Henri Solganik, Teacher (with a capital letter 'T')

Monsieur Henri Solganik, Teacher (with a capital letter ‘T’)

However ineffectual my attempts to learn, I continued to dream of someday speaking another language, and I knew that the teacher of the only advanced French class was Henry Solganik. He was one of the younger, cooler teachers. More than that, he was vibrant with life and the implication of a world far wider than our neighborhood in Queens.

So in my final year in high school, I made one more attempt to learn some French. This time, thanks to Henry, something stuck. What happened that year was that French was finally freed from drills and scripted “conversations,” to become a living language. We read Sartre and Racine—aloud, and with tremendous overacting. As we might have done had we been raised in France, we read Le Petit Prince and Le Petit Nicholas. I also recall thumbing through issues of Paris Match. Not only did we read, but we spoke. We discussed current events and what we did over the weekend. Henry told us about some of his travels. His travels were an important part of who he was to us, fundamental enough that, when we wanted to give him a present to say “thank you,” we chose to buy him the suitcase you can see in the snapshot above.

I know there’s much else I’m forgetting about that class; but I can haltingly express myself in French if I have to, and there are two important moments I will always remember.

We were smart kids, but Henry knew how narrow our horizons were. He decided to broaden them before we launched out into the world. At the end of the year, he treated us all to dinner in Chinatown. The enormity of his generosity must be considered in light of the size of the class (there were about 30 of us; he split us into two groups to do this) and the fact that teachers’ salaries were even lower (proportionately) than they are today. The only qualification was that he would be ordering the meal, and we must each absolutely taste every single item that was put on the table. In an almost hysterical state of anticipation, we took the subway downtown and followed Henry to the restaurant. We’d all eaten a lot of what we considered to be Chinese food (Americanized Cantonese), but even those whose families might have ventured downtown had never been to a place like this. It was a half-basement space, and dimly lit, the combination making it seem far more exotic that it probably was. The maitre d’ greeted our teacher like a friend and showed us to the large round table. Food started coming out. With each new plate that arrived, Henry would scan our faces with wicked glee. Some of what he’d ordered was actually familiar, and even the more mysterious dishes weren’t scary once we tried them. Except, that is, for the snails. They came in the shell, with toothpicks to dig them out. We didn’t know what to do so, with one trembling eye remaining fixed on our own plates, we watched him demonstrate. Then he sat back and, grinning from ear to ear, watched. I remember sticking the toothpick into the shell and wiggling until I pulled out what looked like an inch and a half version of a pencil eraser. I held it gingerly between my teeth and snapped my mouth shut before I could decide not to. It was as chewy as an eraser, too; and it honestly didn’t taste like much of anything. Yes, the first snail I ever ate in my life was overcooked and under-seasoned. But this peculiar not-horrible mouthful, consumed in a strange place but among safely-familiar faces, made me feel worldly and adventurous. It was probably the first adult meal of my life, and the memory became a kind of mascot to bring me courage when confronting the unknown.

At some point during that same year, one of my classmates (I think it was Thalia Gross) brought a mango to class. During the years of my childhood, pineapples were about the most exotic produce any of us encountered. The closest we came to other tropical fruits was the label on the can of Hawaiian Punch. I don’t think there were even two of us who’d ever seen a mango. Henry’s face lit up like the sun. I’m sure that’s why she brought it to class; she knew he’d know what do. He took out his pocket knife and ran it around the edges to halve it, then scored the halves and turned them inside out. He passed the halves down the rows of desks. Each of us in turn nipped a single cube of sweet flesh from the skin and passed the rest down. Unlike the snail, the mango was a revelation to me. It was what I thought Olympian ambrosia must taste like.

During that final year of childhood, I was lucky enough to spend 40 minutes a day with a teacher who thought not only of the schoolwork we needed to master but of the wider world we would explore once we ventured past our own backyards.

I remember Henry Solganik, and that moment on the frontier, every time I cut open a mango.


Vote of Consciousness

Mark Lefkowitz & the Busy Bees /  ee-aye ee-aye oh
We’re always fast & we’re never slow /  ee-aye ee-aye oh
With Lori as the Vice /Everything will be precise / Everything will be just nice
Mark Lefkowitz & the Busy Bees /  eeee-ayyyye eeee-ayyyye ohhhhh!

Music, trad.  Lyrics: possibly by  Barry Levy  &/or David Breger (aged 9/10)


The lyric above was the campaign song from when Mark Lefkowitz and I were the “Busy Bee”  ticket for our 4th Grade class election.  If memory serves, the opposing ticket was the “Eager Beavers”, but I can’t remember who they ran.  I can’t even remember who won, which is pretty shocking as this was the one and only time I ever ran for school — or any — office. What I do remember (other than that campaign song, which lodges like a recumbent virus in my brain  cells) is that this was run as much like a real election as possible, with campaign managers, songs, posters, speeches….everything. Which meant a lot of people were involved.  As we were a class of about 36 kids (one of four such in the school, at the height of the Baby Boom), I can’t imagine how few unaffiliated voters there might have been to decide the election.

I stumbled across this memory today, because today is Primary Day in New York.  I live in the same city neighborhood where I grew up, so I vote in what was my elementary school. This morning, I left the house at 6:30 am to vote before going to work.  At that hour, there are few enough people in the streets that after a while they fade out and I find myself walking through the past.  What happens when I reach the corner of 71st Road is that I start to hear another song in my head.  When we were in 2nd grade, my friend Dini Callas and I were allowed to walk to school together “alone.”  At some point, one of our mothers had warned us “no dilly-dallying”, and the way kids have of taking up any phrase that amuses them, we’d turned it into a jingle, which we sang as we skipped along.  Today, I walked briskly, truly alone but with that silly song ringing in my ears.   I crossed that intersection, where a walk/don’t walk sign has replaced the barrel-chested red-faced policeman in his brass-buttoned blue tunic.

I kept walking, down the side street that still has the same “one family houses” as it did back then.  In an area that was primarily apartment buildings before my birth, this was a distinction then and is more of a distinction now.  One of those buildings used to have a rose bush out front.  It was the first rose bush I remember in my life.  It was a beautiful rich dark pink, almost red, and I thought I could smell it even leaning from the respectful distance of the sidewalk.  My second rose bush, the one in the yard of my father’s friends Arlene and Hank, was the one that taught me about thorns.

Across the street, where there is now the nursery school portion of a Jewish Center, there were once a few old houses.  They were torn down when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, leaving nothing but their stoops and foundations.  One of them, someone found had, had been Helen Keller’s last home.  This was fascinating.  Coming back to school after lunch, if we were early enough, we’d sit on the stoop that was still left and try to talk to each other in sign language that we’d learned from the back of the juvenile biography in the library.  Today I can still spell out W-A-T-E-R.

I reached the school.  It was a fairly new building when I started there, and hasn’t been drastically changed in half a century.  Today, the footprint of my kindergarten room is sprouting I-beams and a sign proudly announcing a new school addition to be open in 2012.   My 2nd, 3rd/4th and 5th grade classrooms all faced the street.  They, at least, looked the same — there’s still artwork taped to them.

Usually I vote in the auditorium, or in what in my day was Mrs. Levy’s room.  I never had Mrs. Levy, but my sister did.  It’s always a shock to walk around the small desks and spot the interloping computers in the back of the room.  I also miss the old blackboards and the shiny-surfaced chalk that you only ever found in school and never in the stores.  This year however, voting was downstairs in the basement which means entering the building from the side door.  There’s a patch of grass — and to call it a patch is only being accurate — where there used to be a handful of bulbs.  Maybe there still are; it’s hard to know in September.  Those were my first daffodils.  Once

I spotted a robin hopping around them.  And yes, that was my first real “robin redbreast.” Entering that door, you’re immediately in the stairwell.  As instructed by the signs, I started down them for the first time in decades.  My first grade classroom was down there.  The stairwell was wide enough for kids to walk double-file, but it’s narrow enough for me to walk with both hands on opposite banisters.  When I was in first grade, on Parent’s Visiting Day, our school was visited by a reporter from one of the New York City dailies.   I can’t remember why, but I can easily find out; I still have the clipping, because in the picture they chose to publish with the article, the photographer had me framed in the foreground.  You can imagine my family’s pride.  After that year, since I didn’t eat lunch in school, I only ever went downstairs when we had gym.

This year, New York introduced paper ballots.  It’s a simple, user-friendly system of filling in the ovals with a black pen (I guess #2 pencils are too easy to tamper with) and scanning the page. It was so early when I got there, that there were few votes as yet; most of the people present were working the polls and buzzing together at their tables along the room’s periphery.  I signed into my district, picked up my ballot, and walked to one of the many empty “privacy” booths. I switched on the light, pulled out the thoughtfully-provided magnifying sheet and put on my reading glasses.

One of the rooms upstairs was where my results with a standard eye chart inspired a teacher to have my parents take me for my first glasses, and in the same room I first learned How Government Works.  A few yards from where I was standing  was the very room in which I’d learned to read.   In rooms throughout this building, I’d filled in lots of ovals on forms like the one in front of me now.  And in this building, I’d once run for office myself.  Seven years in this building had prepared me for the task in front of me.  I picked up the pen, and with a silent salute to my childhood, I performed the adult civic duty it was my right, privilege and responsibility to perform.

Se-Souvenire de

I just got out of the shower and slipped on a memory.  It’s my hot weather post-subway ritual, to cool my skin by taking a shower with Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap and then, while still just a bit damp, wrap myself in this yukata.  For five minutes, maybe ten, I feel not only cool but also serene.  I cross the bridge from the work day to my truer life.

It’s just a long thin sheet of navy blue cotton, with an asymmetrical white pattern that mimics woodblock prints.  An ordinary summer kimono.  Very ordinary.  You could buy something like it in thousands of shops around the world, at least a quarter of which are probably named something like “Oriental Bazaar.”  In fact, I bought this one in a shop called Oriental Bazaar.  But that Oriental Bazaar was in Toyko, and that’s what makes this yukata so special to me.  Each and every time I wear this yukata, I recall picking it out from piles of similar ones at the Oriental Bazaar.  I remember that afterwards, the end of an exhausting day, my friends and I found a sushi bar near the train station, a sushi bar with a conveyor belt from which we daringly selected random plates and our conversation consisted mostly of “no, that one’s not the eel, the eel is the one on the green plate.”

On the other side of the day, before we’d ended up at the Oriental Bazaar, we’d visited the Meiji shrine.  In my memory, I see the cool silvery-brown of the Torii and can almost feel my fingers touching the wood.  I see an elegant minimalism, nature respectfully tamed by light and empty spaces.  A family, the women dressed in elaborate kimono, bringing a new born child.  And in the park, the iris garden, tortoises in a pond, and a man making his own calm in watercolour.

That same day began with my friends and I waking up on our futons in the hotel in Itzukogen.  On the way to the train, we bought hot coffee in cans at the station shop, a shop that carried everything from dried fish to Hello Kitty keychains.  Next door was the little bakery where we had not yet figured out which pastry was filled with what, but that was fine with us.  We sat in the train, sipping from our cans and eating our pastries, until we got to Atami where we could switch from the spur line to the Tokyo train.  We made this trip for six days, because wherever we wanted to go, we always had to change at Atami.  On this day, the second trip, we already felt experienced and were emboldened to walked the market for the first time and stare eagerly at everything that was on offer.  I try, but can’t remember if this was the same day we bought the white peaches that came individually wrapped in tissue paper.

This is why we call them “souvenirs”, those things we bring back from trips.  It almost doesn’t matter what they are, but the best souvenirs are the things we actually use because in handling them, we go back to the time and place when we first picked them up and we remember.

By the way, my Dr. Bronner’s is a kind of souvenir, too.  I remember the first bottle I bought, one sticky week in Poughkeepsie, my sophomore year of college…