The Triumph of Socialism

 

 

by Ralph A. Raimi

 

 

 

What do you say to a neighbor lady when you have to be polite,

and you know she is only being polite in asking, and you wish it would

end? In 1930 I was six years old, and the neighbor lady was Mrs. Jaruga,

whose son George (called Zdisziu at home) was in my first grade class in

school. I was standing next to my father, who had just rung up a sale on

the cash register; Mrs. Jaruga, with her package under her arm, was ready

to leave. We lived behind the store, on the 5200 block of Chene Street in

the Polish district of Detroit. It was about 5:30, my mother was out back

preparing dinner, and I was out front watching my father, as I often did

when school was over for the day.

 

Chene Street was all stores, with the proprietors living behind

or upstairs. Next door to us was Zukowski's "Kziegarnia Ludowa" ("Peo-

ple's Bookstore"), selling not only books and magazines, but folding tele-

scopes, ice-cream sodas, baseballs, dog-collars and chessboards. Jaruga's

music store was the next one after Zukowski. I was often in both, for

both families had children like me. Zukowski had animals, too: cats, a

parrot, a dog, and sometimes rabbits or white mice. Jaruga had better

than that: he had music. He would go about his work singing songs of

Schubert, or playing a phonograph record for a customer.

 

In our neighbors' stores nobody paid much attention to me, but

my standing at the register beside my father in our own dry goods store

seemed to demand Mrs. Jaruga's attention, perhaps "My, how you're grow-

ing." She looked at me, I waited, and then she said, leaning a little in

my direction, "And how is George doing in school?"

 

Well, what can you say to a neighbor lady? "Fine," I told her,

"Just fine." Maybe I mumbled something more, but she was no longer

listening. She smiled at me and at my father and left the store.

Probably she hadn't heard anything I said; but I had heard, and it

bothered me.

 

"You know," I then said to my father, "Zdisziu is really the

worst boy in the class. Miss Kunen always has to make him stand behind

the piano." My father's reaction surprised me: He laughed and laughed.

Then he opened the register and gave me a nickel, the shining disc of

praise.

 

This was the traditional symbol, and you could spend it too. At

school we were graded 1,2,3,4,or 5 (equivalent to the A,B,C,D,E of today),

and for years I had seen how at each marking period my father would

ceremoniously count the "1"s on my brother's report card and give him that

many nickels. By 1930 I suppose he was already giving them to me, though

I was only beginning to be graded. He gave them for other notable

academic achievements, like being 'double-promoted', that is, advanced by

a whole, rather than a half, grade at the end of a semester. This had

happened to my brother more than once.

 

The nickel I got for lying to Mrs. Jaruga was a novelty. A

shock, in fact. My explanation to my father, that the Jaruga boy was

really not doing fine in school had been intended as a straightforward

explanation, not a display of some virtue of my own, something to be proud

of. I knew of course that my lie had not been a serious one, for I had

seen people, including my parents, doing that sort of thing all the time.

I wasn't afraid of punishment or shame, only misunderstanding. Let the

record be clear: Zdisziu Jaruga was not doing fine in school, and my

father deserved to know it.

 

Reaping such praise made me think quite deeply about the whole

affair. At dinner that evening my father repeated the story for my mother

and brother: what Mrs. Jaruga had said, what I had said, and with what

gravity, what diplomacy! Knowing what I do now of my mother's character,

I doubt that she was as charmed with my performance as my father. Nor, in

the end, was I.

 

Sure, I recognized diplomacy in my own behavior even as I

recognized it all about me, and I had as just an appreciation of its

necessity as my father or mother. But for my father to tousle my hair,

and say, "I tell you, the boy will grow up to be President!", and to laugh

and laugh, meant that there was much he did not understand about me. What

to me seemed normal behavior had come as a surprise to him; this must have

been the first time I saw that my father was not omniscient.

 

That he should have been literally omniscient I naturally had

not expected. If I went out to Zukowski's and he looked for me at

Jaruga's or Schwartz's, that only meant that he didn't know where I was.

No harm in that; he had no way to know, and I was no infant to imagine

otherwise. The shock of the Jaruga incident was that it had taken an

explicit statement from me before he could credit me with following an

elementary rule of behavior that he himself, indeed, had been teaching me

all my life.

 

Other examples come to mind now, though perhaps they didn't

then. Words. "The kid must have swallowed a dictionary," people used to

say of me. Perhaps so, and if I had uncorked a lecture on medieval

metaphysics and thereby surprised my father I might have accepted his

praise with pleasure, and no surprise at his surprise. This would have

been out of the blue, like being with Solly Schwartz instead of Walter

Zukowski; who could know? But metaphysics wasn't needed; sometimes a

simple phrase like 'foreclose the mortgage,' which I heard about me every

day, especially in my father's presence, would astonish the company, my

father included. He should not have been surprised at this, nor my uncles

and cousins, yet they were. Plainly the world did not understand me.

 

I suppose I hadn't much business, at age six, discussing

mortgages. I hadn't much business discussing anything with adults,

actually, except relative to the necessities of daily family life. Just

the same, if Uncle Zalman had a mortgage and talked about it, how maybe if

he went into partnership it should be divided thus and so, was that any

different from a speculation on rain or snow tomorrow? Or the chances the

Detroit Tigers would get a new first baseman?

 

Yet if I mentioned baseball or rain to my father, little notice

was taken, while if I asked some technical question about interest rates

or the clearing of checks at the bank, he would look at me with amazement.

This was distressing. How much more might there be -- and not only about

me -- that my father failed to see, though it was before his eyes?

 

I didn't get nickels for everything. As the Depression deep-

ened they were harder to come by, though my father bravely continued to

distribute them at report card time. I was an expensive embarrassment, I

suppose, in that I got so many "one"s. I no longer recall exactly, but I

believe the nickels got rationed more severely in the 30s than they had

been in my older brother's time. The principle, however, remained

unchanged.

 

Nor was I skeptical of my father's authority to assign praise

and blame. That he was not omniscient did not cause my world to come

tumbling down. I wasn't the sort to declare revolution, either. Nothing

in my childhood, in fact, has ever given me any reason to believe in the

Oedipus Complex, although I did note the frequent fights between my father

and my older brother. As with my father's ignorance concerning my

understanding of diplomacy (or mortgages), these scenes were also obser-

vations to be filed somewhere in my consciousness, and thought upon.

 

I did not always think coolly, or at leisure. There was one

time, not too many months away from the Jaruga episode, when I sat at

dinner watching a bitter exchange of words between my father and brother,

and then burst into tears. It might be that several minutes had elapsed

between the words and the tears, because my mother, in comforting me,

genuinely didn't know why I was crying, and asked -- what's the matter?

My father, too.

 

"Some day I'll grow up and get as old as Abraham," I said,

through my tears, "And then you'll holler at me too."

 

This story too was repeated around the family, though not

exactly in praise of my understanding. Well, maybe it was. That sons

would fight with fathers was perhaps regarded as axiomatic, once the son

grew old enough. I believed it when I observed my twelve-year-old brother

Abraham that time, but it was not long before I resolved otherwise for

myself. I hated the sight and sound of discord, of which there was plenty

in the streets, and the homes of my neighbors and relatives. In fact,

never once during my childhood and youth did it become necessary for me to

battle my father, though our philosophies were continually and

increasingly diverging.

 

With the passing of the years, and with an increasingly objective

appreciation of my father's mentality, I discovered another dimension

to the story of Mrs. Jaruga and the nickel. Even a wise child needs time

to learn: I thought many times about that day, and each increment of

experience brought me a rounder view of it, as if a painter were applying

his colors before my eyes, little by little, glaze upon glaze increasing

in depth, upon what had been a simple, one-dimensional cartoon. The

lesson of my father's non-omniscience was not the only one to be drawn; it

was only the most obvious, the outline, the part most easily grasped by a

six-year-old. It left questions. My father was also astonished, for

example, and (as nearly as I could see) equally proud of me, when I spoke

of mortgages, survival of the fittest, or surplus value (phrases I heard

all around), but these utterances earned me no nickels; why?

 

It wasn't the simple diplomacy of my answer to Mrs. Jaruga that

won the prize, either, for I had been as diplomatic with any number of

relatives and friends of the family, now that I think of it. I endured

the cheek-pinching of Mr. Flinker, the paper and twine salesman, with his

tedious questioning, "How're you doing with the girlies, eh?" "Fine,

fine," I would say to him, quite as meaninglessly as to Mrs. Jaruga, and

my father would beam (while my mother glowered at Flinker); but no

nickels. Why?

 

Another part of the answer, I have come to believe, was that

Anya Jaruga was a special kind of audience for my diplomacy. A neigh-

bor? Sure. A friend? Maybe. But above all, she was a customer.

Flinker was not a customer, nor was my uncle Zalman, but Mrs. Jaruga was.

The first rule of retailing is, "The customer is always right."

 

This phrase may no longer be current in these days of great

impersonal shopping malls, but in 1930, and as the years darkened towards

1933, it grew ever more poignant. Diplomacy might be a virtue among

friends and relatives, but quarrels too were sometimes inevitable. With

customers a quarrel was never in order. The feature of the Jaruga

incident that my 6-year-old mind had not grasped, then, was that I had

been standing there as an agent of the proprietor. My nickel had not been

an academic nickel for excellence in school; it was rather a commercial

nickel, straight out of the cash register, for services rendered.

 

It was not only that my father had not understood me, had not

appreciated how easily courtesy and innocent dissembling came to me in the

proper context (customer or not), but that I had not understood him. At

age 6, with the Depression yet to come, and with no experience of the

harsh Polish ghetto my father had come from, the shops and pushcarts where

gentlemen with whips and dogs were deferred to by Jews who had lived on

the knife's edge for centuries, I thought the customer was only another

human being. Mrs. Jaruga was to me only my classmate's mother, but in

truth -- to my father -- she was only the most recent in a long line,

stretching through Cossacks and Hussars back to Centurians, and indeed

Pharaohs.

 

This is not to say that my father saw no difference between

Detroit's Chene Street and his stetl of Nasielsk in Poland, that he had

left only seven years before. He knew Mrs. Jaruga to be a friend and

neighbor, just as he knew the policeman on our corner was no Cossack and

no enemy. The dangers Detroit posed to a small shopkeeper were certainly

not of the same order as those he had escaped in fleeing Europe. But if I

today can remember the Depression, the unemployed endlessly playing cards

in Perrien Park and sleeping on the benches, all of this fifty years back,

how should my father not remember his own childhood, so much more recent

then to him than Chene Street is now to me?

 

"Yes, Panie, certainly. You are perfectly correct, an intelligent

choice; I shall be forever grateful, Gracious Sir." Ay, if this had

been Poland and not America, my father would still have given me the

nickel, but he would not have laughed.

 

-------- -------- --------

 

My mother assimilated more easily to American attitudes; the

residue of fear was less marked in her. She had come to this country in

1921, two years earlier than her husband, who was then still a prisoner of

war in some remote Russian village, waiting for the armies of Trotzky and

Pilsudski to agree on Poland's eastern boundaries. That war, between a

newly recreated Poland and the Sovietized Russian empire, is little remem-

bered today, and the boundary it achieved has long since been erased by

the achievements of much greater wars; but obscure wars have their victims

too.

 

My mother escaped it, at least in part, coming to America. My

father not only gave battle for Pilsudski, but later came under Communist

influence as a prisoner. More than a year he spent, somewhere near

Yaroslavl in the north, with a ration of black bread each morning and an

unlimited opportunity to join his captors in the study of Marxism. They

lectured him incessantly.

 

Certain lessons were obvious and attractive. In this new world

were found no more Excellencies and Gracious Sirs: all were comrades

together. God too was dead, the Jesus of the Orthodox as well as the

Jehovah of the Jews. There would be no more pogroms, and Jews and

Gentiles would be brothers under Lenin's banner. Nor would there be rich

and poor.

 

Indeed, my father already had as much to eat as the Russian

soldiers who guarded him, which is to say, next to nothing. But this was

the fault of the Old Rgime and of capitalist oppression. Once the war

was ended and the swords beaten into ploughshares, what a world of plenty

there would be! All the parasites of the past would now be engaged in

productive labor, the Grand Dukes and ladies and their liveried servants

baking bread and building houses, the priests and altar boys, the makers

of jewelry, the tax collectors, the swarms of rubber-stamping officials in

uniform, the speculators in grain, the retail merchants...

 

The retail merchants? Of course. To buy at one price and sell

at another, what is that but theft? When the productive capacity of

mankind is turned loose, when the tools of production are at last in the

hands of the people (my father was taught), an abundance of food and

houses and music and science will come pouring forth as the world has

never seen. From each according to his ability, without prejudice or

restriction; and to each according to his need, without strife, and in the

security that once only privilege enjoyed.

 

Actually, the Russian prison camp was not the first place my

father had heard socialist theory, for even in the Nasielsk ghetto there

had been Jews who eschewed religion as their sole intellectual guide,

turning rather to secular prophets. Marx himself may have been

incomprehensible, but Das Kapital stood (unread) on the shelf as proudly

as any Talmud, while such lesser sages as Maxim Gorki and H.G. Wells, who

could be read, provided the daily fare of political debate. It did not

require much Russian indoctrination to persuade my father that capitalism

was as his captors described it, and that Lenin had the cure.

The war ended, my father came to join his wife and son in

America, to beget two more sons (myself the first of these), and to open a

business. Open a business? A retail dry-goods store, to buy at one price

and sell at another? Well, there was nothing else he could do. Could he

have gone to college, he might have been a lawyer, doctor, engineer or

teacher, something honorable. Were he content to leave his family in

ignorance and squalor, he might have gone to work in a steel mill, blue-

collared and drunk every Saturday night. But it was too late for college,

and the workingman's existence was simply not what a Jew could live,

however much he celebrated the proletariat in his political gatherings.

 

One mark of a wicked world is that it requires wickedness of its

inhabitants. Maybe a saint can exist here and there, but in Detroit, with

a wife and two sons -- no. "Comes the Revolution," as the saying went, he

would no longer have to exploit his neighbors' credulity, cater falsely to

their whims, display his wares with specious attractiveness, hiding the

defects under a seam somewhere, and take their money on paydays. But the

Revolution was not yet, not in Detroit, not for him.

 

My father's philosophy was not simple; it had at least two

strands, compounded as it was of Marxist simplifications and his own

Tolstoyan asceticism. In his whole life he could not bring himself to

believe that studying the contentment of a customer was in fact a service.

Put baldly, as he would have put it, it sounded like fraud. Put it

another way, as I have done in arguing with him, and he failed to

understand.

 

I might say, "But look, your customer has no place to buy

curtains if you do not exist. You go to New York and see what the manu-

facturers are making. You stand here in the store day after day and ob-

serve what people like to put in their houses, and what they don't like

and therefore don't buy. If not for you, what would he do? Drive to New

York and go up and down the wholesalers? There isn't room for him there.

For a thousand customers you make one trip and save the other 999, and you

cause exactly what they want to be brought here to Chene Street, and you

hang them on racks so they can see, so that in a very few minutes, on

their way from work or from lunch, any one of them can pick out what will

bring him pleasure every time he sees it on his window."

 

"He is right, this customer," I would say, "He is the only

definition there is for the word 'right'. Your job is to find out what he

wants and get it to him. If you make a mistake, the goods will rot on the

shelves and lose you money. If you guess, or anticipate his taste, better

than Pupko on Ferry Street, he will pay you more than Pupko. He doesn't

have to pay you; there is no bandit or soldier standing with a gun to his

head. You are entitled to what he pays you just as if you were Jascha

Heifetz asking him to buy a concert ticket, or a cab driver taking him to

the station. You play well, or you drive reliably, because it is his

taste; are you cheating him when you do your best to please him?"

 

It was hard to see, when I was younger, why my father remained

unconvinced, but I now see there was something more than Marx behind his

objection, something my idyll of the happy customer didn't even touch.

Fundamentally, he believed that nobody really needs curtains, or a ride to

the station. People don't need things. They should eat hard bread and

simple meat; what do they want with satin bedspreads for wedding presents?

The salesman who persuades them to buy that bedspread is at bottom as

wicked as a burglar who takes the same dollars from their cookie-jar.

 

In the ideal world of the future, we will all produce for need

only, not specious attractiveness, and men will not be tempted to fill

their houses and bellies with frippery. The profit motive is not merely

the corruptor of the seller, and the creator of rich and poor, and the

source of envy and bondage and war; it is also the corruptor of the buyer.

The retailer participates twice in evil: as a non-producer he is living

off the labor of others, and as an advertiser and salesman he is leading

others into temptation and waste.

 

This blend of Marx and Tolstoy was never expressed to me

succinctly in words, let alone those I have employed here, but it was

never absent from his consciousness, and poisoned his daily life from

beginning to end, though not so much at the beginning, when he had not yet

had much success. He began American life, upon his very arrival in

Detroit, as a salesman in his brother's appliance store; he needed to eat,

after all. It was my mother who persuaded him to open a store of his own.

Before that store, opened in the year of my own birth, had a chance to

prosper significantly there came the Depression. Thus, for the first

fifteen years of his business career my father did not have to be much

troubled by questions of morality; he, at least, was hardly living off the

backs of the poor, and he, at least, had no substance to waste on vain

things. If the world insisted that the Customer, that Mrs. Jaruga, was

right, so let it be; and children must learn to live in the real world.

 

My mother was the driving force behind the business, but the

customs of the time needed a man at the helm. Banks didn't loan money to

women in 1924, and wholesalers didn't extend credit, and if a customer

asked to talk to the boss and was referred to a woman he would feel

himself mocked. She would gladly have opened the business herself and

left my father to a more moral occupation, but the world would not have it

so. It took the two of them, and for more than fifty years the two of

them worked there every day.

 

My mother's background was not much different from my father's.

Her father was a tailor while my father's father was a dealer in grain and

somewhat richer, but my parents had both been born in Nasielsk and they

both learned socialist theory in the secular atmosphere of the German

occupation of their town during the First World War. Still, my mother never

came to believe in the intrinsic evil of the retail trade. Perhaps it was because

she lacked the advantage of my father's prison-camp education, or maybe it

somehow grew out of the difference between her father's trade and his, but

I doubt it. More to the point, though maybe not a sufficient reason, was

that she was of a less speculative turn of mind and simply enjoyed what

she called "good things." She would praise her father, the tailor, for

his ability to distinguish a fine piece of material from an inferior one,

just by looking at it from across the room. When, a moment later, he

would come over and finger it and purse his lips in recognition of its

value, nod his head and say, "Good, good," my mother would be proud.

 

But more than in "good things," my mother took pleasure in a job

well done, whatever its intrinsic value or its philosophic justification

might be. The store was neat and clean, swept every morning with a brown

sweeping compound that came in small steel drums. The store was closed

every night with long runners of cotton sheeting stretched over every

counter to keep the dust off the displays. The house dresses were lined

up on hangers at this side, underwear on a counter on that side, gloves,

shirts, men's pants, silk stockings, sheets, pillowcases, curtains --

everything in its place, clean, counted, and showing to its best

advantage.

 

If someone had come to my father in 1930, asking "Why do you

keep this place so clean? Why is each kind of goods in its own place?

Why are the nicest bedspreads displayed out front?" -- his answer would

surely have been, "To sell." There was on our corner another small dry

goods store, Wolf's, which was as dark and disorganized as ours was bright

and logical. Wolf was poor; he didn't sell. My father, explaining, would

have drawn the contrast vividly, as indeed he must have done to me (though

I didn't ask), since I still remember the difference.

 

If my mother had been asked the same question, and given time to

think about it, and instructed to find a philosophically acceptable

answer, she would probably have said the same thing; but that was not by

instinct. A fast, impulsive answer would have come out quite different.

She was not given to saying these things, but her first thought would have

been:

 

"Clean, orderly? Why not? Should my store be dirty while my

house is clean? I don't like disorderly places." Then, later, she would

have thought of the customers. And, later still, of their potential to

pay. Yet somehow she was better at it than he was; I believe this was

because she never thought buying at one price and selling at another was

thievery, as my father had. She believed in business.

 

In 1930 my mother was thirty years old, in other words, young.

Probably she would not yet have been able to recognize these differences

between herself and her lifetime partner. She approved my behavior with

Mrs. Jaruga, as who would not? -- but she would not have given me the

nickel. Nickels are for lessons learned, not for natural behavior,

however admirable.

 

My mother observed in me the same instinct for order that she

knew in herself. She often said that I should have become a surgeon,

because I was (as she thought) not the sort to let sentiment or squeam-

ishness get in the way of the technical demands of the job to be done.

But this is only to say that she respected the competence she thought she

saw in me; she actually knew very little about surgeons, and her formal

education had not prepared her to understand that poets require quite as

much of that cold quality as surgeons, and that the retailer and the

engineer, as professionals, are no different.

 

All of them -- poet, surgeon, merchant, engineer -- please the

customer if they are any good, and by behavior more or less artificial, if

the standards of the San Francisco flower people of the 1960s are taken to

define 'natural.' The poet and surgeon are conscious of what they are

doing. Perhaps the customer himself is not uppermost in their minds, but

at least the craft is. Wordsworth defined poetry as emotion recollected

in tranquility: -- recollected meaning written, or crafted -- but it was

not just any passion that deserved to be forged into poetry: someone must

be interested by it. Part of the coldness of the poet resides in his

delineation of emotion from the outside, as it were, but a second part

resides in his estimate of what an audience is in fact likely to want to

read, both as to subject and style. Readers, clients, patients, public --

is there any real difference?

 

Our dry goods store on Chene Street was like every other

profession, trade, calling or vocation. My mother and father both had a

good sense of order, and they both knew their neighbors' tastes, styles,

prejudices and incomes. They made use of this knowledge, and their own

natural abilities, to please their customers, to provide them with

dresses, gloves or sewing threads, and then to get paid for it, even as

Samuel Johnson sold his books. (Johnson is reputed to have said, "Sir,

nobody but a blockhead has ever written, but for money.")

 

But while my mother could take innocent pleasure in exercising

her talents so, and spend the money she thus earned in good conscience,

and on good things when possible, my father was heir to a thousand

inhibitions, shared with the countless generations of landless aliens who

had gone before him, all taught to cringe before the higher values of

aristocracy, or scholarship, or -- more recently -- of literature and

science. In some degree it was because he had had the education of a boy,

and not a girl, in his native Nasielsk, where in the cheder, the religious

school of his childhood, he had been taught that there was only one

truly worthy calling, scholarship.

 

My cousin Morris Kane, who grew up with my father in Nasielsk,

and was almost his age, had also come to Detroit about the same time as my

father, and had a business of his own, as did practically all our

relatives. He was often in our house, and I particularly liked to hear

him sing. He sang in Yiddish, English, Hebrew, Russian, Polish; from the

traditional Hebrew songs of the Passover Seder to the Russian songs of the

Revolution and the victory of the proletariat. He believed in the one no

more than in the other, but his singing could make you cry.

 

In his later years he would argue with my father about their

childhood life in Nasielsk, which my father tended to idealize,

remembering it as comforting, secure, gemeinlich. Morris thought no such

thing, and remembered too clearly the day-long school, cramped and

stifling both physically and intellectually, like everything else about

his childhood. He once said to me, "Imagine, Ralph, a town where every

little boy must, absolutely must, grow up to be a Rabbi. Without

exception. And if he doesn't, he is made ashamed for the rest of his

life."

 

Though everyone must, not everyone can. For each success, then,

there were a thousand who went through life unworthy: apologetic or

defiant, but never unconscious of their failure. (Their children, God

willing, would have to do better.) Morris Kane recognized that conscious-

ness in himself while my father denied it; but it was there.

 

Add to this the socialist economic doctrine that pronounced my

father's work parasitic even by secular, materialist standards, and the

Tolstoyan instinct that told him the "goods" he dealt with every day were

unnecessary from beginning to end, and the outcome is plain: to my

father, the pleasing of the customer was fraud. Necessary in an evil

world, perhaps something to be laughed about when talking to brothers and

cousins (themselves also dropouts from Nasielsker virtue), certainly not

illegal or forbidden by God, surely necessary to teach one's children if

they were not to suffer from poverty or the contempt of their companions

-- but at bottom it was a swindle. It was business, where the ordinary morality,

the morality of the family and of the cheder, is suspended. With my

answer to Mrs. Jaruga I showed, it seemed to him, that I had somehow

learned a lesson he had hesitated to teach. What a relief; give the boy a

nickel and make sure he doesn't forget.

 

1930 was only the beginning; there was a Depression yet to come,

and a war to dwarf the two my parents had already seen; but in the end,

from the closing of the banks to those awful years when it seemed that

from one week to another no customer came in to buy, the store survived

the worst.

 

For a few years my father sporadically kept a sort of diary, in

a large bound ledger book whose pages had many blue and red lines intended

to demarcate accounting entries. He did not keep his accounts there, but

used it to write out little stories he heard, practicing his English, it

seemed, and to record family events. The earlier entries were more

cheerful than the later, and it was a disheartened man who finally stopped

writing in it, long before using all the pages:

 

 

January 8, 1930

 

A Bum Joke

 

A bum came in to ask for a job, and the manager said, "How do I

know you won't steal something?" The bum said, "Well, my last job was in

a Turkish Bath, and I didn't take even one." Decemb. 3, 1930 "We came here

for a change and a rest. The waiter got the change and the hotel got the

rest."

 

Feb 19, 1931 Hardly any customers today.

 

Mar. 21, 1931 Zysele spent today a whole day downtown and didn't buy a

single thing. Punishment, shame. ['Zysele' was my mother's name, in

Yiddish diminutive.]

 

April 12, 1932 Not much doing.

 

Aug. 10, 1932 Nobody came in this morning.

 

Together, from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., my mother and father

waited on trade, swept the floor and sidewalk, washed the windows,

arranged the displays, kept accounts, paid the taxes, and brought up three

children. Their parents died. The brothers and sisters and cousins and

nephews and nieces that had stayed behind in Nasielsk, or in Warsaw or

Mlawa or Wieskowa -- all murdered when the Nazis came. But the business

went on, and with the end of the war prosperity returned. The store became

stores, "dry goods" was replaced by a specialty line of curtains and

draperies, branches grew in the shopping malls, managers appeared, and

accountants and lawyers and buyers; but my mother and father still went to

work six days a week, and sometimes seven.

 

-------- -------- -------- --------

 

Thirty-six years in the life of any human being is so enormous

that one can hardly be said to be the same person at both ends of that

span. Rip Van Winkle slept only twenty years, and Odysseus himself

voyaged for only ten. Still, the professor who attended the International

Congress of Mathematicians at Moscow in 1966, accompanied by his father

and mother, was (as the world reckons) the same as the boy who had once

gone to first grade with Zdzisiu Jaruga. The Congress was to run two

weeks, my parents wanted to see Russia, here was their chance.

 

I signed my father on as a member of the American Mathematical

Society for 1966, so that we were all three able to take the Society's

chartered airplane to and from the Congress, and to occupy the hotel rooms

set aside for Congress participants. Bringing wives (or husbands) and

children was common, and provided for in the registration procedures, but

I must have been the only participant who brought his parents. It was

only for convenience, anyway, for they could have taken a different air-

plane or a different hotel; Moscow had ordinary tourists, too.

 

This way, though, we enjoyed the atmosphere of the group, ate

together in the great dining room of the Leningradskaya Hotel, and went

sightseeing together some of the time as well. We were pleased to find,

on the first day of the Congress, that in the main lobby of the Moscow

University the Russians had provided a free guide service, with students

at the university who spoke foreign languages as the guides. At the table

marked ENGLISH my parents and I signed up one Igor Korsakov, whose English

was particularly fluent because he had gone for many years to a special

school that used English as the language of all instruction. In the

University he was specializing in East Indian languages, which he would

later use professionally, but English was the language he was especially

anxious to use, exactly because he wanted to meet Americans. It was as

much a benefit to him as to us, that he should spend his days with us.

 

With my parents, would be more accurate. I spent most of the days

at the mathematical meetings, and having coffee or beer with colleagues,

some of them Europeans or Asians I had earlier known only through

their writings. And when I returned to the hotel for dinner, which I took

with my parents, Igor had gone home for the day. Still, over the two week

period we did all get to know each other pretty well, and even I managed

to spend one full day with Igor, when he took us by local railroad train

out to Zagorsk, a town near Moscow, to which the Orthodox from all over

Russia make pilgrimage. There is a Saint Dimitri embalmed there, and a

line of pilgrims day and night to see him, chanting Gospodinpomilui

Gospodinpomilui without intermission.

 

Despite its being a pilgrimage center, and the site of a

monastery and the only approved Russian Orthodox seminary, Zagorsk was a

fairly primitive village. We walked the streets to find lunch, which

without Igor would have been impossible, since there was no hotel or

restaurant set up for foreign tourists. The streets were of dirt, with

ditches at the sides for drainage. The houses had woodpiles outside, and

through the windows we could see the great ceramic stoves they used for

heat, and near which they slept in winter. My father said it could have

been lifted from his own experience of 1922: "Forty, fifty years," he

said, "And nothing has changed here. Nothing." There was even a drunk

lying in the gutter, literally, in the very gutter at the edge of the

footpath, but when I prepared to take a picture of him, selecting an angle

that would also show the street and the houses, Igor stopped me. "No,

please, that isn't nice," he said, and so I put away the camera.

 

Lunch itself Igor found in a house one would never know to be a

restaurant; it was just a house. Inside, it had a large room set with

four tables, one of them already occupied by Russians. Igor ordered for

us and insisted on paying for us, and so we had no idea what it cost.

Even more mysterious, Igor did not sit with us, or eat lunch at all; he

said he didn't need it. After introducing us to the owners and getting us

seated, he sat out front and read a book while we ate. As if he were a

chauffeur in uniform, I thought at the time. Was the University paying

him for his time with us, so that he considered himself an employee and

not entitled to presume on the acquaintance? We never found that out.

The lunch was simple to a fault. The toilet, too; I didn't visit it

myself, but my mother did, and returned immediately, making a gesture of

despair by way of explanation. I believe she spent the afternoon in some

discomfort, until we reached the railroad station on our way back to

Moscow. Or the hotel, for all I know; I have seen some Russian railroad

station toilets that made me curl my toes inside my shoes.

While we were with Igor we asked about everything we could think

of, but learned next to nothing about himself. We argued politics,

socialist realism, Daniel and Sinyavsky (two authors who had recently been

jailed for publishing novels abroad without official permission), Trotsky,

the recent developments in China (that turned out to be the start of The

Cultural Revolution), the Vietnam war. We gave him all the reading

material we had brought with us: some novels, magazines, and a nearly

complete copy of a Sunday New York Times I had fortunately taken with me

from the airplane.

 

These were all treasures. Moscow bookstores leaned heavily to

Jack London and Charles Dickens in their stocks of English language

literature, as I discovered when I went to replenish my own supply after

the first week or so. My copy of Norman Mailer's Advertisements for

Myself interested Igor greatly. What a pity I hadn't brought some really

forbidden literature, Lolita for example, or Dr. Zhivago, both of which

were prohibited at that time, and for many years afterwards too. Alas, I

hadn't realized we would meet any Igors, or that our chartered airplane

would bring us past Soviet customs inspection without search.

 

Igor was in his early twenties and, he said, a Komsomol member.

He argued dutifully along Communist Party lines in all our discussions.

Sinyavsky, he said, wrote scabrous literature that did not deserve

printing. Trotsky had been plotting against Lenin. The Soviet Union was

not in Vietnam like America, nor in Tibet like China; why did we fear them

so?

 

Yet despite his defense of Soviet policy and history, I later

had reason to believe Igor's heart was not in it. He was very grateful to

us for more than can be described here, and on his last visit to our hotel

room he wordlessly gave me as a present a small 19th Century wooden icon,

a real beauty. When I wanted to thank him, he put his finger to his lips

("Shhh!") and pointed to the ceiling light fixture, where a microphone

might be hidden. It was the only reference he ever made to such things.

 

Four or five years later, after my brief correspondence with

Igor had dried up, a new Russian emigr (his name was Victor Tupitsyn)

wrote to me from Italy for advice and help, saying he had been given my

name and address by Igor Korsakov by word of mouth, nothing written, on

the Moscow railroad platform just as he was boarding the train for Vienna.

It had not been a very accurate rendition, either, and it was remarkable

that the letter ever got to me.

 

As it happened, I was able to help Tupitsyn, who was something

of a mathematician, and when he came to America and visited me he told me

more about Igor. Tupitsyn had lost his job in consequence of having

helped put on a forbidden outdoor modern art exhibition on a Moscow vacant

lot. The police bulldozed the show into a hole in the ground, and

arrested the perpetrators; so Victor applied for emigration, even though

he was not a Jew. Of course the Soviet authorities had to call him a Jew,

since it was put about for local consumption that only Jews leave the

Soviet Union; but once in Vienna he was separated out from the real Jews

and permitted to apply to go to whatever country would have him. He is

now a professor at an American college.

 

Igor had not been, it turned out, a close friend of Tupitsyn's,

but did live on the fringes of the modern-art circles of Moscow because of

his interest in icons. He lived a sort of Bohemian existence in Moscow,

in his parents' apartment because he had no independent permission to live

in Moscow and get a legal apartment of his own. However, he actually

spent a large part of his time traveling in the Russian hinterland

collecting icons from peasants and whomever else he could find. As Victor

explained it, Igor had the common touch, he knew the language of the

peasantry and could gain their confidence, reassure them that they would

not get in trouble by selling him their family icons, things they were not

perhaps supposed to have, and certainly not to sell. But Igor, he said,

would never leave Moscow. "What, and leave his icons behind?" He was

writing monographs on the icons, and while he was no friend of the State

he was very Russian.

 

I treasure the icon he gave to me, and have it hanging in my

dining room. It wasn't until I got back to America that I found that I

had courted trouble by smuggling it out of the country. But 1966 was a

year of detente, and the American Mathematical Society chartered airplane

was immune to search. I was lucky. On my only later trip to the Soviet

Union, crossing over from Finland by bus, I was searched centimeter by

centimeter while dogs were sniffing the bus itself.

 

Mostly it was my mother who spent hours with Igor in Moscow,

while my father was wandering the streets alone and I was at the

University. My father spoke a little Russian, of course, left over from

his prison camp days, but my mother's Polish, while akin to Russian as

Spanish is, say, to French, was not enough to enable her to do much on

her own. Even the Cyrillic alphabet is intimidating; we had trouble

recognizing our subway stop, though it was advertised in letters a foot

high.

 

One night my mother came to dinner with the news that Igor was a

Jew. How did she find out? She had been asking him about the Jewish

question, and he had been insisting that there was no such question in the

Soviet Union. Jews were like everyone else. No difference. No such

prejudices here. Anti-Semitism is against the law.

 

My mother had heard otherwise. Don't Jews have different

passports? No, no different, said Igor. But isn't it written on the

passport that the holder is a Jew? Jewish "nationality", like Armenian or

Ukrainian? She had him there, but there was something about his reply

that made her suspect that he was being overly defensive. Besides, he

seemed extremely - - what? Cosmopolitan, maybe, as Stalin might have put

it. It was something, well, familiar. He had to be a Jew; and when she

pressed him it turned out she was right. Yes, it was so written on his

passport. So that was o.k. Now she was free to like him as much as she

wanted, and to buy him things as if he were her own son.

 

There was lots of time to talk, at a Leningradskaya dinner,

where the kitchen and waiters made the meal a three hour ordeal. An

orchestra, too. (After a few days I took to buying some tomatoes, sausage,

bread and beer in the groceries nearby and having dinner in my room, about

half the time, anyhow.) Well, my father reported that he had gone to the

Moscow synagogue, where he found some old folk who spoke Yiddish. He

asked them about life there and so on. But the real story was that it

took him two days to be able to do so. The shames, the man who kept the

place clean, ushered strangers to their seats, and was in general charge

of the physical appurtenances, well, the shames was a fink, my father

said, and seemed to have as his principal function the keeping of

tourists away from the locals. As soon as my father, an obvious

foreigner, appeared, the shames ushered him to a front seat, and buzzed

around seeing to his comfort and satisfaction, asking what he needed and

so on, and then tied him up at the end of the service so that the regular

congregation had dispersed by the time my father could turn around. But

my father foxed him; he came back the next day and refused to talk to the

shames at all.

 

Most tourists don't get to come back a second time. What the

shames is unable to do, Intourist, the Russian travel bureau, does in his

place. An Intourist guide will consume your whole day with lectures,

usually while you are parked on some remote street near a famous church or

museum, and then give you a solid ten minutes inside before the bus or car

wants you back. This was our experience on our short trip to Leningrad

at the end of the International Congress, where we spent many hours eating

and sitting on a bus but took the Hermitage at a run. A Moscow

mathematical congress is better than tourism. During the two weeks we

were there we were pretty free to go around as we liked. At night,

especially, I enjoyed the sight of the crowds in and around the four

railroad stations that occupied the square on which our hotel was

situated. People carrying great bundles, lying on the floors asleep. One

man I saw playing an accordion out front, where several people began an

impromptu dance on the wide sidewalk, was stopped by the police for

reasons not clear to me. The accordion player was angry, and began to

argue with the policeman, but a woman held him back and led him into the

station.

 

It was full of life. I was told later that there was a reason

for the large bundles. People would come into Moscow from the smaller

towns, often far away, especially to buy food, like apples and tomatoes,

which were unavailable in their own towns. The food distribution system

somehow favored the city, I suppose because one large shipment is easier

to handle than many small ones; and Moscow was the hub of all the rail

services. That was, in fact the point. Rail service "costs" next to

nothing in Russia; it was, like bread, subsidized. Therefore a poor woman

in a small town could come to Moscow by essentially free transportation,

buy as much scarce food as she could carry, sleeping overnight in the

Yaroslavl station if necessary, and then carry it home to sell, earning

ten -- or a hundred, for all I know -- times the unrealistic price of the train

ticket. People did this by the thousands, smoothing out the shortages

generated by the central planners, one supposes.

 

"Subsidy" is hardly the word for this kind of pricing. There

was nothing in Moscow that was priced in relation to its cost of

production, as near as I could see. Virtuous things, like subway rides

and copies of Pravda, cost next to nothing, while sinful things like

radios cost an arm and a leg, if you could get them at all. Some shops

had nobody in them, and if you looked inside you found they had

essentially nothing to sell. Wherever there was something anyone wanted,

like patterned cotton cloth by the yard, the lines were tremendous, hours

long.

 

Dry goods! My mother wanted to buy a few of those typically

Russian shirts, baggy, with a embroidered stripe leading up to a high

neck, the kind you always see on folk dancers the cultural exchanges send

to New York. She wanted to have something to bring back to Detroit for

presents. She had been to GOUM, the central Moscow department store,

without success. You could, and did, get a couple of phonograph records

of folk music if you waited long enough, but anything in the way of

clothing was hopeless.

 

In Russian stores they have what may be called "the three queue

system." This means you stand in one line, to get to see up front what is

on sale, so you can decide what you want. Then you join the second queue,

at the cashier's window. You tell the cashier what you intend to buy, and

at what price, and when you pay you get a receipt which you carry back to

the end of the first queue. If, when you reach the front again, the item

is still there, you turn over the receipt and get your goods.

 

The system must be convenient for somebody, the clerks perhaps,

but for one who doesn't speak Russian it is plain impossible. In Italy,

where my mother had once traveled, she could point to a thing she wanted

to buy, hand over a bill and be done with it. But here? Even with Igor,

who managed to get her the folk song recordings in a reasonable time, most

of GOUM was impenetrable. But Igor, my mother reported, thought he knew a

shop where such shirts might possibly be more accessible.

 

As they were walking there -- it was early the next morning --

my mother noticed a long line of people on the sidewalk, a line going

around a corner so that the front could not be seen. What was this? --

she asked. Igor knew. It was the line for the jewelry store on the next

block, he said; people were waiting for it to open, so they could buy

wedding rings. How did he know it was wedding rings, exactly? (There

always seemed to be something missing from Igor's explanations, however

hard he tried. His English was superb, but there was still a gear

slipping in the middle somewhere) Well, he said, a shipment of wedding

rings had just come in, and there were a lot of people who had had to get

married without them who now had the chance to repair their lack. So they

started lining up long before opening time, to make sure.

 

As they rounded the corner my mother saw the shop they were

lined up for; nobody would ever suspect it sold jewelry. Wolf's, on Chene

Street, looked brighter and livelier. "How did they know the shipment was

coming in?" my mother asked. "Was there an ad in the paper? Was there a

sign on the window?" No, nothing like that, Igor said; people just knew.

The word got around. How Igor himself knew all this was another question,

which my mother hadn't the strength to ask. Every answer produced two new

questions, and in any case they were approaching their goal. "Here it

is," said Igor.

 

It didn't look like a store, but they went in. The place was

dim and high-ceilinged, with a bit of pre-1917 splendor in the iron

scrollwork on the balconies. What could this place have been, in 1917?

A ballroom? A courtyard? Hard to tell. There were display cases set

about now, dirty, empty, and inconveniently placed. They would have

impeded traffic, had there been any traffic. There seemed to be a woman

in charge, but she was seated with her back to an arrangement of counters

that insulated her from the entrance and the newcomers. She appeared to

be terribly busy over some papers, long beyond the time she must have

become aware of their arrival.

 

My mother had plenty of time to look around. Someone had even

built a display window facing the street, my mother observed, one she had

overlooked at first because it was absolutely empty, except for some dead

and living flies. Without Igor she would never have known from the street

what the shop had for sale, or even that it was a shop at all, open to

business. Having come inside didn't make it much clearer.

 

Habits of mind die hard. When my mother saw a store her

professional consciousness shifted into gear. "My goodness," she said,

"What a shame. This is really a fine building, you know. Or it could be.

Attractive. Why..., if I had this place I could..."

 

She mused, imagining the placement of counters and displays,

the curtains, the lighting, the carpet, the stockroom. And balconies!

"Yes, before I was done," she said, "I bet I could bring in every customer

on the block."

 

"Why would you want that?" said Igor.

 

Of all that my mother saw and heard in Moscow that summer,

this was what she remembered best. She laughed when she came to that

part, so hard she could hardly go on with the story.

 

"`Why would you want that?' he asked me; imagine! What could I

tell him? He doesn't want it, the woman there didn't want it, the

government doesn't want it; so who? He's right, Igor; the boy is right.

Nobody wants customers here. Such a place!"

 

Did she get any shirts? Well, no. "The woman said they were

out. She told us maybe next Thursday."

 

"We're leaving Monday," I said.

 

"She wouldn't have them anyway," said my mother.

 

-------- -------- -------- --------

 

Fifteen -- eighteen -- years later, when my mother was old and

feeble -- dying, actually -- when she could hardly walk, and her voice was

trembling, I came to Detroit as often as I could, to visit. Her entertainments

were limited, since she couldn't hear well enough to enjoy most of what

was on television, and she found reading, even in large print, a strain.

I couldn't really even talk to her, because of her hearing, but she could

talk to me, and she enjoyed having me around.

 

She was not one to dwell on old times, but I would bring them

up, feed her questions. I learned more about Nasielsk in that year or so

than she ever had time to talk about when I was a child. The German

occupation of 1915, her sister who died of tuberculosis, the Chassidim who

from religious zealotry had one night burned down the lending library she

and her high school friends had tried to start with books from Warsaw.

One story after another, disaster upon disaster if you choose to look on

it so, but not to my mother. These were interesting things, things to

remember, life. Coming to America, opening the store, sending the

children to school, to war. What would become of all this when she was

gone, she wondered.

 

She told me too how grateful she was to me for having given her

the chance to travel. I understood what she meant. She had traveled

from Nasielsk to America, of course, and innumerable times to New York or

Chicago on business, but my father didn't like to travel, or spend money

on anything else, for that matter, and he looked darkly on her traveling,

or spending, without sufficient reason. Business was one such reason, and

visiting the children was the other. If it hadn't been for me he would

never have gone along. They visited me in Paris in 1950 when I was a

student there on a Fulbright scholarship, and later in places like New

Haven, Vancouver and Cambridge, where I spent Sabbatical leaves of

absence.

 

So as we drove around Detroit in those last few months, she

would, under my prodding, remember each such trip, along with the more

ordinary events, the routine list of disasters that make up a life; but

the Moscow trip was the one she kept returning to on her own. Igor, she

wondered, where was he now? Why did he stop writing? Why didn't he come

to America, like Tupitsyn? Why didn't they clean the toilets, even in the

Leningradskaya Hotel, in Russia? As she ruminated she would inevitably

come to the story of the shirts and the empty store, and you couldn't stop

her. She always ended it the same way.

 

"Imagine!" she would say, "I said, 'Igor, if this was my place,

I could bring in every customer on the street,' and he said `Why would you

want that?'" Then she would laugh, and repeat, "'Why would you want

that?'" It was, in her last year, about the only thing I ever saw her laugh at.

 

 

Rochester, New York

October 1, 1989