The Fight of the Century



   
    January 2012          
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The Brooklyn Dodger Meets The Louisville Slugger

By Norman Chansky

Jack Weinstein, though svelte, would saunter about the corridors of The Home, with a scowl on his face, head hanging low, shoulders sagging, and punching his left palm with his right fist and muttering to himself. His posture told it all. He was more than sad, forlorn, or wretched. He was angry and what a college sophomore would say "clinically depressed". Did he matter to anyone?

Not in his mind. Don't talk to him about Jacob Junior, the mamzer. Jack despised the name Jacob- Senior or Junior, He wore his old moth eaten Eisenhower cap to cover an expanding bald spot and to remind everyone that he had once been an army hero in WWII. Who cares now? No one, especially Jacob Junior, the mamzer, who sneered "big expletive hero". His Purple Heart medal on his beige pajamas told it all. His heart was wounded. He hated to be where he was "pitching his last tent" but where else was he to go? Like it or not, The Home For The Jewish Aged and Infirm was no pleasure dome but the last resort. This community was his only contact with reality, such as it was. He would say, "aged Jews of every stripe quote 'live' unquote here". Residents of The Home are multilingual, speaking Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Lithuanian, and every variety of Yiddish in every sort of English dialect. They are besieged by every type of senility and display quirks of every cast. Izzy Belkin greets everyone with a repetitive, "Remember me?"; Fanny Waldbaum plays with a curler hanging about her right ear which she pulls on; Eva Finkel knits imaginary socks. Abby Gold wears a man's felt hat everywhere.

Harmless quirks. The Nurse's Aides are constantly smiling and humming to themselves. They enjoy their work, even emptying bedpans. Jack Weinstein calls them "M'shugah" He cannot understand how anyone can be so cheerful in his drab surroundings: peeling wallpaper, water stained ceilings, urine odor wafting in every corridor. When he sees the aides he shrugs his shoulders and circles his ear with his finger. "Good Mawning, Mr. Weinstein," they would sing.

He would answer, "Be like and onion with your head in the ground." He did not remember the rest of the saying. He knew his memory was failing.

It was a flitting fright. His heart thumped. Scared, Weinstein ran into the Men's. He stared at his face pared down to shrinking bone. He saw his crooked grin in the mirror. Shadowboxing the image in the mirror, he sought relief from his anguish. Bam! Pow! Jab. Left hook. Jab, jab. Right hook. Step back. Lunge. Punch the aging karker in his sagging face he told himself. How I hate to grow old. O God why Did You Gift me with old age? It was punishment for cheating on my partner. Wasn't it. God! You are Cruel. Laugh at me. Ridi Pagliacci. He heard his mother's plaintive, plangent voice from the grave sweetly telling him, "it vill all be vell ef you let it." "Yes mama." he sobbed, "I'll let it." Then Millstein came in and mimicked him as he got ready for business in a booth where the toilet paper was dangling on the floor. "Baby Weinstein. Some hero. Saved a book in a library." He whispered loud enough to stab Weinstein in his ego. Millstein bragged about this to me later.

Living within the walls of The Home are specimens of every degree of destitution, every level of education, and every breed of ignorance. At The Home are moaners, groaners, shriekers, bangers, streakers, experts, advocates, supporters, socialists, religious, and pests. There are disabled, disfigured, blind, deaf, catatonic. Happy? None. There is even one who, though speech able, after a lifetime of college teaching, silenced her tongue and throttled her throat, taking to heart the words of Job who said, "I wish you would be quiet for that for you would be genuine wisdom".

There was even a Republican but he stored his political views in the closet. Minnie Silverberg is a type. Several men and women at The Home fit into her category. They don't just complain.

They unload their burdens onto any soul kind or bed ridden enough to listen. "You carry my tsores," they say, "and see how that feels. "There was Rose Finkel who blamed everybody for her gastric misfortunes: the president, the rabbi, Weinstein, Dr. PAL, and the staff of The Home, especially, the dietitian. The cook? Don't even ask. She was in a category by herself, direly in need of sharpening her taste buds. So enthralled was she with her rage, she could not surrender it.

Then there are community members like myself: strong, intellectually curious, well read, engaging conversationalists but alone and saddened by being "incarcerated' in an institution." " A home," they would say, "a farshtookener prison." Then there are sadistic needlers like Millstein and whining women like the widow Epstein. The soup is too hot. The soup is too cold. There is too much salt in the soup. The soup needs salt. Mrs. Bernstein talks too loud; Mrs. Bernstein talks too soft. Nothing ever pleased her. Jack would try to avoid her but then she would look straight at him and complain that he snubbed her.

Jack always gave me the silent treatment. That was fine with me. I did not feel like talking to him either. We would walk together soundless and thriving in one another's silence. "Don't hang around me!" He would command. I would punch his arm and we would continue on our mindless stroll. I whistled "Me and My Shadow", claimed to be written by Al Jolson and often sung by Ted Lewis. I followed him about, satisfied with being obscure and he accepted me as a nobody he could learn to tolerate.

One day unknowingly Jack and I wandered into the Maxwell Cohen Community Room. We did not realize that we were staring blankly at a television set. Watching a commercial, Jack was brooding over his lost freedom. Freedom to buy the advertised junk, like hair shampoo, carrot scrapers, antacids, and cell phones. He wanted to buy a suit of clothes to replace the oatmeal smeared tattered pale blue pajamas he always wore. In walked Dr. Leary, Dr. Patrick Aloysius Leary. He wanted to be called PAL. He would say the "rawshay tayvot" of his name, the acronym was PAL. He wanted to be the residents' pal and also show off that he had once studied Hebrew.

Crowning the bald pate of the good doctor is a garland of curly red hair matching his handle bar moustache. Dr. Leary seemed always to have a laugh upon his lips and a twinkle in his eyes. He would greet the residents with "top of the mawning to you". Even in the afternoon. Jack thought to himself 'of course he can smile, he can go home every afternoon'. "Jack," the doctor began "you look sad". "I feel wretched, no blue," Jack replied-adding "PAL" sarcastically. "Anything I can do to help?" the doctor asked watching the hulk in better physical shape than he himself.

"There's nothing you can do or anyone can do unless you can free me from this jail." "How about a game of chess?" the doctor asked. "Why not," Jack replied, "what else is there to do with my time?"

I watched Leary, a short, rotund man waddle to his office followed by the muscular Weinstein marching in measured steps like the soldier he once had been. Leary inserted the key into the lock of his office door. Jack smiled at the sign,The Samuel Krinsky Medical Office. He turned the key with a flair and admitted Jack like he was a doting waiter escorting a patron to a table in a fancy restaurant. I tagged along. I whispered to PAL that I am Jack's silent partner. I watched them start the game. First they exchanged pawns; then knights. "Tell me Jack," the doctor began, "are you wondering why you are here?" "Bingo," Jack answered. "Your son says you aren't responsible for yourself and need supervision." "I need supervision? I need supervision?"

Me a retired colonel from the Army with a medal for bravery? See my Purple Heart from the wounds my son gave me." Jack's voice shot to an M above high C. "Your son doesn't think you can be trusted to take care of yourself." " I am not responsible? I am not responsible?" Jack, face as red as the doctor's mustache, shook his fists in anger.

"Well are you honestly able to take care of yourself?" the doctor asked. " My son, may his mother rest in peace and never have nursed him with her beautiful milk filled breasts, is no one to talk. Twice he married. To shigseez, no offense intended, Doctor PAL. He had two children with each. Divorced them both. Rather they divorced him because he was fooling around with other women. Lots of them. I have four grandchildren who don't know that I exist. And now he is off to Bermuda with a teenage lesbian. He rolled his eyes. And I am not responsible?" His fist came down on the table and nearly split it in two.

Dr. Leary asked, " Do you mean the actress who lives with him?" Jack nodded. "Oh, that's a thespian not a lesbian." They both laughed and continued the game. "Your records show that you owned a furniture store. But what did you do for recreation? Boating? Tennis? Golf?" "None of the above," Jack replied." I belonged to a reading club." "No physical recreation?" Leary asked.

"When I was in the army, I boxed, " Jack replied. The doctor was stunned. He thought to himself Jews don't box. They avoid contact sports. They fight with words, with logic, not with fists. This guy must be pulling my leg. Although there are exceptions like Slapsy Maxey Rosenbloom.

"Boxing, you say," suspiciously inquired the doctor. "For a while at the end of the work day I'd go to the Walnut Street gym and did a few rounds. But Sarah, my wife, made me stop when I got my nose rearranged."

They both chuckled but for different reasons. The doctor had fitted Jack into a stereotype of the Jew. Jack laughed because he knew what Doctor PAL had done. "Well," the doctor said, "what if I ordered a punching bag for the gym and you could work out there whenever you liked without fear of a nose rearrangement." Jack thought about that for a moment and picturing his son's face on a punching bag, said, "do it!" "Shall we finish the chess game?" the doctor asked.

"No. I'm not very good at it." "Neither am I," confessed the doctor. Just then a woman came barging into the office. Jack said, "if it isn't Evalyn W." "I'm not interrupting anything important? not if Weinstein is here," she said. Flustered, Dr. PAL said, "kindly wait outside I'll be with you shortly."

Then Jack and Dr. PAL shook hands and with great gusto Jack loped to his room down the Dr. Irving Epstein D.D.S. Walkway, when an orderly stopped him. " Hey Weinstein. You were galloping 50 miles an hour in a 15 mile zone and you ran a red light. Now I won't give you a ticket this time. But don't do it again." The orderly laughed showing his gold-capped teeth and Jack let out a howl, releasing all of the energy his hate had built up.

Dr. PAL breathed a deep sigh. He wished he were a drinker but instead took out a piece of Wrigley's and chomped until his tense jaws relaxed. Muttering "serenity now", he picked up the latest issue of Psychiatry Today when Evalyn Weiner charged in again. "You forgot about me?" she demanded. "Please take a seat," he gestured. Mrs. Weiner was rotund. Voted by the staff as having the best appetite on her ward, she let no food go to waste except to her own. Never were there leftovers at her table because she obliged the kitchen staff by cleaning everyone's plate.

"Good mawning, Mrs. Weiner, " Dr. PAL called out. "It's 'weener'", she croaked. "You mean like in a hot dog?" he fumbled for words trying to lighten the mood. "No!No!NO!" She rebutted.

"As in weeeeeener." "O.K. Evalyn." he said. "how can I help you?" "I want my dog. Fluffy. Nurse says that I can't. It's against The Home rules. I read in the newspaper about studies showing that pets speed recovery." "That's true," Dr. PAL answered, " if you were in your own home you could pet Fluffy or Muffy or Buffy. BUT the Board of Health says no pets are allowed in The Home." Sulking she grumbled , "Some dackter you are!" "I'll look into it, though." he regained his composure. She left in a huff and didn't hear Dr. PAL say, "the next time please knock before entering." Returning to her room she grabbed her pillow, fondled it, snarled, and yelped. "Good dog; good Fluffy; sweet Fluffy," she breathed. "Bad PAL." In his office Dr. PAL took out another stick of gum and crushed the wad in his mouth repeating "serenity now", as he clutched the Psychiatry Today he was reading.

******************

The punching bag and two pairs of boxing gloves arrived two weeks later. Jack carried his gloves to the Marcus Kane Gym. He opened the door and felt a cool blast from the air conditioner.

Now this is great", he muttered. Then he slipped one glove on and awkwardly snagging the other held it beneath his jaw. "Will someone tie these gloves for me?" he asked of the only other person in the gym- a carefree bleached blond woman of eighty years bouncing on a trampoline. "Did I hear a please?" she asked. "Please, please, please," he replied in disdain. She flew toward him, tied his gloves carefully so as not to bother his taped hands, and jumped back on to the trampoline. "By the way," she said, "My name is Mimi. Mimi Rosen if you need to ask a favor again." "O.K. Mimi," he sheepishly replied, whistling a Puccini aria.

He raised his shoulders, snarled, and looked at the target straight on. He hit the bag and made a dent in it. He hit it again. Harder. And again harder and harder. He imagined he was hitting Jacob Junior's face. He swung wildly and the bag came bouncing back for more and nearly knocked him down. Now this was fun, real fun, he thought. Not shadowboxing. Jerry Aronson was passing by the gym when he noticed Jack dancing and punching. No one liked Jerry. First, he was pompous, claiming to be a direct descendant of the High Priest Aaron. Second, he barked like a dog. Third, he always used foul language. The rumor was that Mrs. Aronson couldn't stand his raunchy vocabulary and had him declared "incompetent". He had no where to go but into the compassionate bosom of the philanthropic Jewish community. That he had Giles de la Tourette's Syndrome no one living at The Home understood. Obscenity is obscenity and that is that. In fact, only a few nurse's aides could even pronounce Giles de la Tourette. Although the aides from "the islands" could pronounce the name of the disease, none knew the symptoms. When he tried to explain his tics to one aide, she saw a tiny insect like the kind that causes Lyme's Disease. Afraid that his condition was contagious, she avoided him.

Jerry was intrigued by what Jack was doing, and with such satisfaction. "What the #@~?f??f are you doing?" he grunted. "Working up a sweat," Jack answered. "Lemme try it.," Jerry said. "There's another pair of gloves over there," Jack pointed with his glove. "I don't need no #@~?f??f gloves," Jerry replied. "Suit yourself," Jack laughed. Jerry swung at the swaying bag. Thwack, whack, thwack echoed throughout the gym. "This feels #@~?f??f good." Massaging his left hand and restraining a tear as a surge of pain ran up his arm and into his jaw, he begged the jumping lady to lace him up. "Only if you stop swearing, " she insisted. She fastened the strings and Jerry, his teeth clenched, muttered, "#@~?f??f", blondie. "Her name is Mimi, " and she expects good manners, you know polite talk, like 'please' " Jack said.

Mimi left the gym and went next door to the Rebbetzin Horowitz Prayer Room for Womento cleanse her ears and purify her soul. After praying for nearly an hour and filled with remorse she felt wanted to comfort him. She did not like Jerry or the way he acted. He's a "nebesh" she said to herself. Still we have to be kind to him, maybe not kind but at least tolerant.

Jack and Jerry worked out every day. One day Dr. PAL stopped by and saw the two of them taking turns pounding the swinging bag and enjoying it. "I have an idea," he said. "Let's have a three round fight. I'll take the winner out to dinner. The residents would enjoy watching you two k'vetches slugging it out." He emphasized the "vetch". Both Jack and Jerry enjoyed competition. After thinking about it for a few seconds they agreed. "But, " the doctor chuckled, "there 'll be no hitting below the Borscht belt or on the head."

The residents of The Home had two theories about Dr. Leary. The main view was that he was a pal and genuinely tried to help each of them. His manner was not brusque. In fact, he was gentle and went overboard to find the right treatment for each resident. Sometimes that was no medication, just rest or talk. And they liked his smiling eyes. They were genuine. His eyes were better than most medicines. Many a woman resident wanted to take him in their arms and hug him. The other theory was that he was basically a closet anti Semite who could not get a job anywhere else except at The Home For The Jewish Aged and Infirm, not with the highest standards of medical practice, and if he could get rid of two Jews in one shot, there would be two fewer Jews to contaminate his world. PAL was just a coverup for his true feelings. They would debate this point in whispers at the dinner table. As with all other issues, the followers of "Hillel" forged the rules of conduct. PAL Leary was a true pal but the followers of "Shamai" would not believe it. Hillel and Shamai were two mythical antagonists in the uneducated minds of many.

On the day of the fight Jack entered The Grand Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz Memorial Prayer Room For Men. There he asked God for forgiveness if he pasted Jerry in the jaw. He hitched up his trunks and walked across the corridor to the gym. Let me beat him but not hurt him.

Dr. PAL reminded the two boxers the rules. No hitting below the belt or on the head. The winner gets a free meal at Shel's Delicatessen at Revere Beach. Dr. PAL announced "in this corner wearing beige trunks underneath his beige pj's is The Brooklyn Dodger, Jack Weinstein, spelled WEINSTEIN and pronounced Wein-steen. You ask why is he called The Brooklyn Dodger ? I'll tell you. As a teenager in Flatbush he would run in and out of traffic. In this corner wearing blue satin embroidered on his trunks #@~?f??f is Jerry Aronson, The Louisville Slugger." Dr. PAL held up his hand to silence the boos. "Why is he known as the Louisville Slugger? When he was in basic training his train stopped at Louisville and he got into a fist fight and spent the first week of basic training in the Louisville jail."

The bell rang and the two sparred. The residents shouted "Punch 'im. Kill 'im." The two went into a clinch and the residents cheered. Round two. Jack faked a fall and motioned to Jerry to do the same. Dr. PAL counted to ten and declared the fight a draw. Residents moaned; some booed.

Milstein, imitating a bagpiper, skirled a caterwauling drone. "Let's the three of us go to Shel's."

As they left the room both made threatening punches to Millstein who cowered.

They "pigged out" on a corned beef on rye with a garlic pickle on the side. After staring at the rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean and the human swarm milling around the Boardwalk, they returned to The Home with smiles on their lips and mustard on their faces.

Jerry walked over to Dr. Leary, shook his hand, and said you are #@~?f??f real pal even if you're an Irish anti-Semite. Mimi walked over to Jack, held the back of his head, and wiped the mustard with her linen handkerchief. Jack's knees melted. He had not felt such affection since his wife held him. Now he knew there was no place like The Home.

~~~~~~~

from the January 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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