An American in Berlin
17 April, 2017
A Berliner in New York, Part II
Diving straight in and picking up where I left off in my last post, I had just parted ways with Shuman – this is Wednesday – after bialys at Kossar’s. Not long after, I was supposed to meet up with Codog for more noodle soup on Bayard street (still Chinatown). But first I had to sneak in a quick beer with my friend Rachel, who was good enough to go out of her way to meet me in the neighborhood.
Rachel is part of the NYU extended “Greek” family, so to speak. I’d see the rest of the gang Friday night for Dale’s birthday. But Rachel couldn’t make that shindig, so it was now or never. For years, we’d spoken together of our mutual love of pickles. Yet, somehow, in all the years of my living around the corner from The Pickle Guys (and possibly Guss’ Pickles; was Guss’ still on the LES when we first moved in, or when did they pack up and head for Brooklyn? The LES used to be pickle city, but now all that’s left are The Pickle Guys. Also, why am I writing this in an extended parenthetical and not a footnote?), in all those years, I say, Rachel and I had somehow never gotten1 together for pickles.
So now we decided that’s exactly what we must do. Only TPG would be closed by the time she could get down there. So I ran in to their new shop, which is directly across Essex from the old shop. And you know what? That was fucking weird. I mean, I’d been going to TPG for years. Like, my thing was, anytime I went anywhere, that’s what I would bring: pickles. Except on Pesach. Then I’d bring a jar of their absolutely lethal, sinus-destroying, god-manifested-in-horesradish horseradish.2 But seriously, I used to bring pickles even all the way up to Maine; on the bus, no less. I’d pop in and buy a single pickle while I was walking around or buy whole quarts for the house. I was there all the damn time, is my point. And while I’ve been away, they move into new, fancier digs across the street. Like I said, it was fucking weird.
Anyway, I bought a pair of new pickles, a pair of sours & finally a pair of spicy pickles. Got in just in time too, right before they closed. A few minutes later, Rachel shows up and we head around the corner to some rando bar for a beer. Now mind you, Rachel is tired from a long day at work while I’m already half-in-the-bag3 from an afternoon of day-drinking with Shuman. So I felt a bit bad about that; but good ol’ Rach didn’t seem to mind.
Right, so we sit down with our beers and I pull out the bag of magic pickles. At which point, Rachel confesses something to me that I was not expecting. Turns out, for all her love pickles, she (inexplicably) doesn’t like new pickles. Takes all kinds, I suppose. But that’s OK, I’ll eat them later. It certainly didn’t stop us from enjoying the hell out of those sours and spicies. Man, I forgot how much I love pickles. Which is weird, right? I mean, pickles are supposed to be a big deal in Germany. And they are, insofar as they’re everywhere. But they’re all kinda sweet and dill-y. I haven’t had a good sour pickle over here; not yet anyway. So between the bialy and the sour pickle, that was some classic LES Jewish cuisine right there.
Anyway, me and Rach did the ol’ fast version of the catch-up. It was great, if all too short. Still, it was really nice to see her. And I have to say, it meant a lot to me that she would go out of her way like that, knowing we’d have to rush through a single beer and speed-eat those pickles. Seriously, I was touched.
But it was over almost as soon as it had started. I was already late for noodles with Codog. So I stumbled up and over to Bayard, where I found another one of these guys who’s been around for more than half my life already. There was a time, back in high school, where Jared and I would be over at Codog’s, playing Super Bases Loaded II every single weekend in his basement. On Sunday afternoons, we would get a tray of 50 buffalo wings and devour them while watching the Yankee game. Those were the good times, man, I tellya.
So I meet Codog at the noodle ship. And right after I show up, in walks his fiancée, Arlene. Which was great, because I adore her; but I didn’t know she was coming. So that was a lovely surprise. Anyway, we all ate noodles. And it was great. How could it not be? After that, we headed back to their place, where I was crashing for the night. This was my only other crash of the vacation. And for good reason.
During my first stint living back on the Island, while I was still working in the city, I was crashing at their place once a week, basically every week, for I don’t even remember how many months. It was like a second home, and I needed it. More than that, they were great to me. First of all, there are no easier people to get along with. Second, they always had a home-cooked dinner for me; always had something to drink. The couch was comfortable. And they both leave for work mad early; they were both gone by the time I’d wake up, which meant zero-stress mornings. And instead of the hour-long train ride from hell, it was a twenty-minute subway ride from their place to the office.
So beyond just wanting to spend time with two of my favorite people, there was a bit of nostalgia to crashing at their place again. We hung out, caught up, cracked all sorts of inappropriate jokes and generally just had a classic good time. After they went to bed, I watched some cooking channel TV, which was my old routine, before finally passing out. I didn’t see them in the morning.
Which was probably for the best, because I felt awful. Seriously, I was not in good shape. But I had to get it together, because I was scheduled to have lunch with my mom and my old boss. This too was pretty classic. I’ve had a lot of great bosses over the years, but MZ might well be my favorite. So many laughs. And if I was having a day, I’d just walk into his office and launch into some or other rant. Which he always seemed to appreciate. And the jokes were gloriously inappropriate. Those too were the good times. All to say, I was glad I got to have lunch with him. Even if I was hung-over and feeling shite.
After lunch, I went over to that godforsaken shithole of a train station on 34th & 7th, only to find I’d just missed the train by like four minutes. And the next one wasn’t for another 90. Which sucks under ideal circumstances. And these circumstances were definitely not ideal. So that was quite possibly my least favorite 90 minutes of my time home. I don’t remember the rest of that day, but I’m sure I did fuck-all, beyond climbing into bed.
Speaking of Penn Station, when I got in on Tuesday, it was rush hour. So I had to wade through that hot mess of The Public. Which normally I would have hated. But it was the first New York rush hour I’d seen in at least nine months. And actually, strangely, it was quite refreshing. Remember what I said about the diversity at JFK? Well, it was that all over again. But also, just sooo many people. I mean, when you’ve done rush hour in the Big Apple, rush hour in Berlin is, I dunno, quaint. Cute, even.
Friday night was Dale’s birthday party. This was at Swift’s, on E. 4th, as usual. I walked down from Penn, because honestly, I desperately needed to walk the streets of Gotham once more. I took Broadway all the way down to 4th and then headed over. It was a bit surreal, knowing I don’t live there anymore. But it was also comfortable. Like a pair of old slippers, or some other equally shitty clichéd simile. Maybe better, it was also a bit Good Night Moon-y. Like, good night Herald Square, good night Union Square; Good night Flatiron Building, good night Madison Square, good night NYU; good night My Old Liquor Store on 8th Street.4
So look, Swift’s is not my favorite bar. I’m still salty over the fact that they charged me for a fucking seltzer at 3:30am at one of Dale’s previous birthdays. I know that sounds petty. But, come on, it’s fucking seltzer. It’s the non-alcoholic aqua vitae, the water of life. You don’t charge for that. Especially at that hour. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m going to regret committing this paragraph to the internets. Like, I’m going to apply for a job one day, and the asshole interviewing me is gonna be all, “Well, your CV is impressive, but we’ve read the entirety of your blog[ue],5 and while that Star Wars spoof was mildly entertaining, we’re just not prepared to hire somebody who can’t let go of getting charged for a seltzer fifteen years ago. But, you know, good luck.” Then they’ll go and hire somebody whose sext pictures they’ve all seen. What a world.
Where the hell was I? Oh yeah, Dale’s birthday. This was great. The whole rest of the extended NYU fam was there. Fredo, Lesley, Katy and Ang, who did the hard work of coming all the way down from CT. I know I wasn’t the only reason she made the trip, but as with Rachel, it meant a lot to me. I also know it was a pain in the ass for her to get there after working all day in the Nutmeg state; so it was kind of extra special, if you know what I mean.
For the most part, there’s not too much worth reporting as far as the party goes. It was just great to see everybody and to catch up and hang out like old times. What’s funny though, is that somewhere along the line, we realized that this September will mark ten years that we’ve known each other. Dale, Katy, Fredo and I met in Greek 101, way back in the Fall of aught-seven. I can’t believe it’s been ten years. Neither could they.
Funny side-story with Fredo. First of all, her name isn’t Fredo. It’s Miranda. But I’ve only ever called her Fredo. She has kinda red hair, so right from the get, I was calling her “Red.” But then she said her hair wasn’t really red. Which meant it was faux-red. Faux-red –> Fred –> Fredo. Nobody else calls her that. But I do, and she answers to it. So it’s stuck. Anyway, she says to me at the party, “You know Dave, when we first met, you told me I would reach ‘peak hotness’ at 27. Well, guess what. I’m 27.” OK, so first of all, who says that? Well, I do, apparently. “And you look great!” I said. And she did. She’s a very pretty girl. “Yeah,” she said, “but ‘peak hotness’ means it goes downhill from here.” At which point, I kinda looked uncomfortably at my shoes and said something along the lines of, “Well, to be honest, at the time, I didn’t think we’d still be friends ten years later, so I wasn’t really planning on dealing with the consequences of that prediction.” She just laughed. It was all in good fun, anyway.
But it does get at something, that to me anyway, is quite nice really. See, when I went back to school – when I met this lot – I was already 26. But Fredo was a freshman. Dale and Katy were juniors I think. The whole bunch of them were in that stage where you’re just beginning to transition from awkward teenager into real person. Lesley and Dale are both tall and skinny. Back then though, they were all gangly limbs and bones. (I dread to think how people would describe 19-year-old Dave; yeesh). But they’ve really grown into themselves. Lesley is positively elegant and Dale, it must be said, with his impeccable taste in dress, cuts a rather dashing figure.
What I’m trying to say – and almost certainly making a mess of – is that they were basically children when I met them. And now they’re proper grown fucking humans, living proper fucking adult lives. Ang lives in an actual house with her boyfriend. Katy is married. Dale is moving to Austin (heartbreaking; as if I was still in New York to feel the pain of it). Lesley, Rachel and Fredo are all living with or soon to be living with their boyfriends; having actual careers and whatnot.
All my other friends, we’re roughly the same age. We’ve grown up together. But this lot, over the last ten years, I’ve watched them grow up; kind of like an older brother, though I’m sure none of them would ever describe me that way. I adore them all, and I’m genuinely proud of them. And I occasionally take the time to reflect on how special it is that they’re still a part of my life. It very easily could have gone a different way.
If there was one downside to the evening, it’s that I didn’t get very much one-on-one time with Dale. That, of course, was a function of his being the man of honor and having to spend time with they myriad folk there to celebrate his birthday. But we did get to catch up a bit. Also, he brought me back of book of Icelandic mythology from Iceland. In Icelandic, mind you. The book is gorgeous, though I can’t do a thing with it. Yet. Obviously I’ll have to learn Old Norse at some point. Still, I can’t believe he’s moving to Texas. Him and his girl have an artisanal craft something-something business. They make cool stuff. I’ll even plug their website, which is not a thing I’m in the habit of doing. http://www.fesswavy.com/ Anyway, he’ll be fine. Dale is one of the most effortlessly brilliant people I’ve ever met, and he’s good at literally everything he puts his hand too. Anyway, either he’ll find a way to visit me in Berlin or I’ll find a way to visit him in Austin. Or both.
Saturday was Niki’s wedding. This, btw, was the reason I came home when I did. No way was I missing that. Aaand…then I missed it. Not the whole thing. Just the actual marriage part. See, we left the house a half hour ahead of schedule. Then we hit the worst ever traffic. And got there after the ceremony. Dave was not pleased. Niki was very understanding. And Harry was lovelily,6 “Aww, now worries mayte, wee’re jist glad ye could mayke it,” in his darling Ozzie accent.
Anyway, the wedding was great. Very small affair; less than 30 people, I think. They had it in the garden of this cute little Italian joint in Carol Gardens. Vinny was my date. No, seriously. Due to some last minute cancellations, Niki asked me if I wanted to bring a plus-one. Vinny was the obvious choice. After all, they already knew each other. They’re both part of what I call the “official Duffs crew.” Loosely defined, the official Duffs crew is Vinny, Joschka and me; the Finns, Lus, Niki and somehow also Dutch Eddie.7 So it felt completely appropriate to drag Vinny along. And honestly, if he wasn’t able to come, I wouldn’t have brought anybody else.
Oh, I should clarify. When I say “we left,” I mean me and parents, as they were also invited. Niki worked at my old job with me and mom and then took over most of my work after I left. Her and my mom got pretty close, so that’s how my ‘rents got invited to this shindig.
Meanwhile, Vinny got there on schedule. So by the time I show up, he’s already chatting away with a couple of Australians. I mean, that’s Vinny. He’ll make friends with a lawn gnome if you put a beer in his hand. Him and Codog, the two friendliest sons of bitches I’ve ever met. Seriously though, it was great to have him there.
And of course it was great to see Niki. Much like Dale’s birthday, with her being the guest of honor, I didn’t get as much time with her as I would have liked. But honestly, I was just glad to be there. My last two years in the city, I was probably tighter with her than anybody. I lived with Jared, of course. But we weren’t going out together much by then. He was busy with school, and anyway, leaving the house at midnight and coming home at 530 after WoHop just isn’t his scene.
So Niki was my comrade in arms when it came to partying. Duffs, RockaRolla, noodles in Williamsburgh or WoHop. To say nothing of all the Archer Nights. My last 18 months in the city, I don’t know what I would have done without her. So if there’s anybody I’m going to fly 4000k miles for their wedding, it’s that kid. And now she’s in Australia. And I’m in Berlin. Those Duffs days won’t come again. Getting hammered and watching Always Sunny over Skype just won’t be the same.
You know who I fucking hate? Holden fucking Caulfield. Catcher in the Rye is shit, I’ll say it. Fucking Holden Caulfield, what an unhappy sonofabitch. But I’ll be damned if sometimes I don’t want to take those good times – the best times – and lock them up in a glass case and keep them forever. Except, you know what? Fuck you, Holden Caulfield. We’re gonna make new good times. And when we do, we’ll raise a toast to Dutch Eddie, and Duffs and RockaRolla and the good old days. That’ll be the first drink. After that, let the [new] good times roll, bitches!
Sunday was another busy day. First up, brunch at Keith and Heather’s. And it’s back to that family vibe. The whole gang was there, and this time all the wives and kids, too. Keith made omelets and pancakes. Jared & Josh brought bagels from H&H. Rob & Meg brought desert. Nothing special to report here. Just classic good times. Lots of laughs. By which I mean, we all just make fun of each other. I played some video games with Kelsey, Keith’s daughter. Because sometimes you just need a break from grownups, right?
But I did have one weird moment to myself in all of this. At one point, I’m looking around the table, looking at all these people who are as much family as they are friends. And I’m thinking, I dunno how to put it. I’m thinking, on the one hand, I’ve made some pretty amazing friends in Berlin. Zibs and Jan, with whom I’m planning a roadtrip. Annett and Jan, who’ve done so much to help me get settled here. Anne, my stranger-in-a-strange-land tandem partner. Joschka, who with Vinny, we’re like the three metal musketeers. So I’m doing pretty good in Berlin. Better than pretty good, in fact. I mean, if my friends here were my only friends, I’d be pretty damn lucky.
Anyway, I’m looking around the room at these people, these mutherfuckers I’ve grown up with, these bastards for whom I’ve been not just at, but in, their weddings. Their kids, who call me “Uncle Dave.” And I’m thinking, what the fuck is wrong with me that I would ever leave these people? How unsatisfying was I finding my life that I could just turn around and say, “peace out, bitches”?
And then it passed. Because the truth is, I was finding my life unsatisfying. And you don’t live your life for your friends, even if they are fucking family. You live it for yourself. Certainly they all do. Which isn’t to say they’ve all found what they’re looking for. But I think, by and large, they’ve at least all found what they need. And that’s something I don’t have back home. Not yet, anyway. That’s why I left. But it’s not easy to leave those fuckers. I love them. Even when I don’t like them – which happens; even when I don’t like them, I still love them. The bastards.
Sunday night, my parents took us – me, Justin & Jo – out for a fancy steak dinner at Bryant & Cooper’s; Long Island’s answer to Peter Luger’s.8 And once again, here’s people going out of their way to do something special for me while I’m in. And yeah, this is special. Because it ain’t cheap. And gods, do I love steak.
I’ve really changed my diet in the last 4-5 years. Much less meat, a lot more veg. By and large, I eat healthier. Which is fine, whatever. It also means that when you do go for a proper steak, it’s that much more special. And man, this is proper steak. There’s really nothing better. Essentially, it’s more or less the same as Luger’s. Incredible beef. Lots of butter. Hash browns, creamed spinach, tomatoes & onions. This is how kings eat, I’m sure of it. I want to say we had a lovely time. I want to say it was great to be with the family. And it was. Obviously. But this was about the steak. And it was glorious.
Monday was dinner at Vinny’s. More great food. We’re talking meatballs, his mom’s dried tomatoes, pasta with his mom’s sauce. We’re talking sausage from Arthur Ave in the Bronx and excellent cheese. We’re talking wine and good beer. Look, the man is a natural cook. So when he invites you to dinner, you go. Joschka and Cindy were there too; the only time I got to see them in the city.
Back in Berlin, there was big talk of taking them to Joe’s Shanghai and Duffs and WoHop. It didn’t work out. I had a choice. Meet them in the city or meet them at Vinny’s. But that’s no choice at all. If Vinny is cooking, you go to Vinny’s. It was cool to see them in New York though; and good to have Vinny, Joschka and me together in the same room. Classic City, population: 3.
Cindy has enough English to get by in this setting, but she’s not fluent. So one-on-one, we were speaking German. Which was great, until she says to me, “Dave, what’s happened to your German?” I dunno, two weeks in New York has set me back. But you can still understand me, at least, right? To which she replies, “Eh.” Ouch. Still though, that was a good night.
Tuesday was family day, this time for my mom’s side. We met my great uncle for lunch. He’s 90, I wanna say. And he’s slowing down, there’s no denying it. But he’s still got his sense of humor. And he’s still full of great stories. I mean, they’re the same stories. Me and my dad were making bets in the car as to which ones he’d tell. We were both right.
One of my favorites involves a rich oil-man relative. I’m going to give an abridged “telephone” version here. By which I mean, I’m sure I’m screwing up details in the re-telling. But the essential core is roughly intact. And the punchline is accurate. Anyway, it goes something like this.
“My father’s brother was a bit of a trouble maker.9 One day, he gets in a fight with an Irishman.10 And he killed him. So he ran away.11 Anyway, he goes down to South Carolina.12 And he gets into business selling goods13 to people moving West. Well, eventually he moves out to Oklahoma14 and somebody gives him some business advice. [Making a long story short], they cheat some Indians out of their land.15 And that land turns out to have oil under it. And [making a long story short again] he gets crazy rich off this.”
That’s incredible. Literally, it strains credulity. But also, what an amazing story. So I ask, knowing full well the answer, “Wait, Uncle Art, are you saying we have a millionaire in our family?! Why don’t we talk to these people?!” To which he replies, “My mother16 said we don’t need anything to do with him.” Here it comes. “Because he doesn’t keep kosher.”
Whaaat?! Right, so I have no idea how much of that story is true. But even leaving room for embellishment, there’s enough there that just, wow. Also, in trying write that down, I realize I simply need to record him telling it. Because I’m too fuzzy on too many of the details. But still. A fight with an Irishman? Cheating Indians out of their land? Oil Money? And we don’t talk to them…because they don’t keep kosher?!
But he’s full of great stories. “The atomic bomb saved my life,” is a classic. He was earmarked for the invasion of Japan, before the bomb. “I should have married this one girl, but she was fat.” That’s another classic. And the best insult in his book is describing someone as being “of the shtetl.” Which you either get or you don’t, but I ain’t gonna explain it here.
What’s hard to wrap your mind around, though, is that you’re getting a distorted version of these stories many many years after the fact. What’s objectively true, is that this was a 5’4” Jewish kid from the Bronx who joined the army during WWII and carried the BAR, the biggest, heaviest gun they had. This is a guy who built and maintained a successful business. A guy who took care of his developmentally disabled sister. A guy who regularly goes to Shul…and then calls himself a “fraud” because he’s “not really that religious”…and then reads Hebrew out of the Hagaddah at Passover like a boss. Whatever else he may be, he’s a fucking treasure.
Right, so this has gone rather a bit longer than I’d anticipated. So Imma stop here for tonight and I guess I’ll wrap it all up in the next post. Until then…
Post Scriptum: I always close my posts with that little bit of Yiddish: זיי געסונט – ‘be well’, or ‘be healthy.’ Anyway, I once asked Uncle Art if they spoke Yiddish in his house growing up. After all, his family came out of Eastern Europe, where they would absolutely have spoken mama loshen. His answer was very interesting.
“My father could speak Yiddish,” he said. I can hear his voice. In my last post, I wrote about that Marky Ramone “Queens” accent. Art has an oldschool New York accent. I guess it’s Bronx; though not anything that would be called a Bronx accent in my generation. It’s a wonderful accent though. Nobody sounds like that anymore. It’s a time machine.
Anyway: “My father could speak Yiddish. And if he went into a store or something, and somebody spoke Yiddish to him, he would answer in Yiddish. But my father really only spoke English. And the reason was, ‘I’m an American,’ he would say. ‘I speak English.’”
I catch all kinds of feels from that. On the one hand, I’m proud of that. You come to America with goal of making a better life for yourself and your family. And Step One of getting ahead is simply to speak English. That’s the Jewish-American ethos, right there. First Generation: Work hard & speak English. Second Generation: College. Third Generation: “Oy, my son the doctuh!”
Look, clearly there’s a lot that went into making me who I am. And I don’t want to put too much on the back of a man I never met. But it was the same in my father’s family too. Bubby spoke Yiddish. But ask her where her accent came from and the answer was “Florida.” Press her harder, and the most you’d get was “Brooklyn.” Anyway, by the time I came along, there as never any question as to whether I was going to college. And I think that goes back to that generation. We speak English, our children get better jobs than we have, and our grandkids go to college.
On the other hand, there’s always this background noise of, “we left for a reason.” Right? The Old World was not a nice place for Jews. And Yiddish is the Old World. So how much of it is assimilation, and how much of it is rejecting the past? So I get the whole, “I’m an American, I speak English thing.” But four generations later, I’ve been deprived of something.
It occurs to me that Vinny can go back to Calabria and speak his family’s ancient dialect with distant cousins. But for us, there’s nowhere to go back to. The people that stayed were destroyed. And the people that left, weather by assimilation or rejection or neglect, well, they let the language die. The culture lingers. Mel Brooks, as a Native American, speaks Yiddish in Blazing Saddles. The sense of humor is shot through our culture. But the language is mostly gone. And there’s no “old country” to go back to.
But who the hell wants to end on a downer like that. Here’s a fascinating thing. Bits and pieces of Yiddish have made their way into modern German. My Berlin friends use words and idioms that come straight of Yiddish. And that’s pretty fucking cool. But I’ll save that for another post. Until then, I say again:
- I literally just had a conversation with one of my colleagues about whether the past participle of “get” is “got” or “gotten.” Technically, both are valid. We think. Anyway, I insisted I was pretty sure I only ever use “got.” And now here I am writing “gotten.” So much for that. [↩]
- Btw, I have not able to find actual raw horseradish root in this city. Which is frustrating. Because like literally everything is better with horseradish. Dad knows what I’m talking about. [↩]
- “Half-in-the-bag” definitely doesn’t get used nearly enough. [↩]
- Did that work? [↩]
- He won’t spell it right; even if he’s only speaking it. [↩]
- Because “lovely” is an adjective; so I guess “lovelily” would be the adverb? [↩]
- So-called because he’s actually from the Netherlands. Lovely guy, that Eddie. [↩]
- Well, technically LI’s answer to Luger’s is Luger’s…in Great Neck. So better to say, maybe, the authentic Long Island answer to Luger’s. [↩]
- My great uncle, like I said, is around 90. So if we’re talking his uncle, this is early 1900’s. [↩]
- I swear, he used the word “Irishman” in at least one telling of this story; though not this particular time. [↩]
- I don’t know if he actually killed the guy. But he definitely ran away. So it seems plausible. [↩]
- Or some other southern state. [↩]
- Clothes, maybe. [↩]
- Or some other flyover state. [↩]
- I mean, seriously? [↩]
- Or whoever. [↩]