Underground With Mommy
By Julia Ross
We took the New Lots train to a hundred and gazillion street way up in Harlem. Somebody rang on the telephone and said why don't you go back to Russia? And then we had these valises packed and we went to live with somebody named Zeke and Beulah in an upper story apartment in a brick building on a hundred and gazillion Street where we knew nobody and nobody knew us. "Let's hope so" Mommy said. "Don't worry, we're just going to be underground for a little while," Mommy said.
"Why do we have to go underground?" I said.
"Mommy's name was on a yellow leaflet" and the telephone kept ringing off the hook. Where did all these mean people come from? They must have lived in the neighborhood. Were they somebody's mothers who were nice ladies in flower printed aprons the rest of the time? Yesterday they were somebody's mother cooking a chicken, bringing out hot, steaming, corn on the cob in a napkin urging boobelas "ess ess, mein kind". Yellow leaflets had made them crazy. From chicken feather plucking, soup making mommies one day to McCarthy Mad Women all from a yellow leaflet?
"What did the yellow leaflet say, Mommy?"
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"What does that mean? Why do we have to stay here?"
"It's nice here, Rachie, isn't it?" She always called me Rachie or Ruchel or Ruchela even though my name is Rachel. I hate Ruchela because it sounds so Jewish. But I always know Mommy loves me when she calls me Ruchela. It was Gramma's name before she died. Just so long as she doesn't call me that in front of my friends. She ought to be able to keep a secret for me. I keep so many for her. Like how am I going to explain to Mrs. Solnick why I wasn't in school for such a long time. I can't exactly say, Oh, Mommy and Me were Just Underground, now can I?
So the least she could do is not call me Ruchela in front of the kids. But if she would call me Ruchela in front of Beaty's or Ruthie's mothers, I bet they would give me some of that hot sweet corn too. I'd be a ketzela too then. But she won't because she only calls me that in private. It's my private name. Just like Kitten or Pumpkin.
And she doesn't talk to Beaty's or Ruthie's mothers anyway. They stay away from her. She's some kind of poison. Ruthie says her mother would get in trouble if she talked to my mother. What kind of trouble I don't know. She'd lose her job or something. You're crazy, Ruthie, your mother doesn't even have a job. Well, my father would or something.
But they talked to her when Ruthie's aunt Fay was being evicted from Herzl Street. They came to the kitchen with kugel and I saw your mother wipe her eyes with her apron when Mommy said I'll take care of it. And when the Committee came and put Fay's furniture back in her living room straight from the Street right past Mr. Weitzman who kept saying I don't want no trouble and he let her move right back in they brought us mandelbroit for a month of weeks. She wasn't poison then. "Well," Ruthie said, "my mother says whoever heard from a Jewish Woman going to Party meetings by night? "
I wanna go home. When can we go home, Mommy?
I don't know, Rachie, she said. She went to the window and looked out from the corner of the curtain. She didn't pull it back or anything but looked out from the side of it.
Is that man still there, Mommy?
Why is he here? Is he a monster?
No, Rachie. He's just an agent.
Agents are tall and they have yellow hair. And pink faces. And they wear suits. Uncle Davy wore a suit to cousin Seymour's wedding. But his suit was gray and fuzzy and he didn't look like an Agent. He looked Jewish. Agents don't look Jewish. Agents wear Blue Suits and their Suits have white stripes in them. And sometimes they wear hats. Once, when one of them came to the door he had funny glasses. Not like Uncle Davy's glasses which have thick turtle shell frames. But round with little gold wires around them. He was scary. But I said my mother's not home and you can't come in and go away or I'll scream and he went away. Mommy said I did good. She was proud of me. I was scared for a week. I looked up and down the street when I went out to play after that. I didn't see him again. But Ruthie said her mother said she saw them in cars just watching the house. I said I didn't see them and Ruthie said that's because they parked in front of her house to watch us, not my house. That's why I didn't see them. Liar, I said. I know it's true even though I said that because when we have lots of company they park out side and write everybody's license plate numbers in little notebooks. I saw them do that. They had expensive fancy pens. We don't.
When can we go home? I said.
Don't you like it here, Rach?
No. I don't like it here. I don't know anybody and I can't go out to play.
Don't you like Zeke and Beulah?
I couldn't say no because Zeke and Beulah are Black. Zeke is really big and he has a deep boomy voice like Paul Robeson. He wears suspenders. Red ones. I never saw anybody but Grampa wear suspenders. Zeke's not old like Grampa but he still wears them. Beulah's always trying to get me to eat but the food is so funny. She has this big pot and it has hamhocks and greens. She gave me a plate of black eyed peas. I never heard of black eyed peas. Peas don't have eyes and they're green. These were not green. She said drink the pot liquor and I said I can't drink liquor, I'm just a kid , and they all laughed. Even her boys. Hampton and Lija. He's really Elijah but they call him Lija or Little Lija . Zeke raised his eyebrows and said something like ahem and those two boys stopped giggling and shut up real fast.
"It's not really liquor," Beulah explained to me. "It's the juice the peas cook in and it's good for you." I took a spoon and nearly choked and the boys nearly doubled over laughing until those eyebrows went up again. So now I try to stay in my room at dinner time. Mommy stays with me and sometimes she says come on, Pumpkin, let's see what's for dinner and I go with her. But I want to go home. I want to go out and play. I want to go out and play with my friends. I can't go out to play here and I don't have any friends here and besides which the Agent'll get me. So I play with Hamp and Lija. We play chess. Lija taught me. He's really good. I'll never beat him. No matter how much I practice. And sometimes I do their homework with them. Or rather, they teach it to me. They're really nice. Until bedtime when they put stockings on their heads. Do rags, Hamp calls them. They look weird. But Beulah's really nice. She ran her hand through my hair and said I know you want to go home. But you'll see, it will be okay soon and you'll be home before you know it. Want me to make you some braids? And she did. She likes brushing my hair. She's nice. Mommy says they are very nice to let us stay here and all. It's really true. I mean I wouldn't like it too much if some kid and her mother just moved on in with us. But after this I know I would try to be very nice to them if they did. I mean if they had to go underground or something. *
But then I thought of Grampa.. Of what he'd say if some strange family just moved right in with us if they went underground. Especially if they were Black. He would plotz. He's always yelling at me to be quiet. He can't stand noise. If two boys moved in with all the noise they make he'd be standing there in his gatkes yelling shaaaaa at the top of his lungs until he turned blue. He didn't know where we were. I could just see him eating his chicken soup all alone without me. He always gives me the pupik and the skin. What did he do with it cause I'm not there?
I miss Grampa, I said.
I know, sweetie.
Who's making his chicken soup?
Aunt Geetie is with him. She's cooking for him.
Grampa said it was stupid.
He said it was your fault.
What was my fault?
He said that it was stupid that you put our phone number on the Yellow Leaflet.
Mommy made a funny face. She kinda wrinkles her nose when she's thinking about something. But then Beulah knocked on the door and said come, there's strawberry ice cream, my favorite. And Mommy and me went to the kitchen table and ate ice cream and then Lija and me played monopoly and then I had to go to bed.
In the morning Mommy looked out from behind the curtain. She was all dressed. Her bed was already made with the pink chenille spread on it like new. It was early and still dark. She said I can't see a darned thing and get dressed quick cookie. She got our valise down from the top of the chifferobe and started putting our things in it. Beulah came to the door and said come have hot oatmeal. The boys were still sleeping but Zeke was pouring coffee. One suspender was up and the other hung below his waist. Drink this, Lilly, he said to my mother, and she took the cup from him. I'll take you to the train. I'll go with you as far as a hundred and twenty fifth street and you'll be met there.
I have to go to the bathroom, I said. I hate that bathroom. It's a dark little closet and the toilet has a chain you have to pull to flush it and I can't reach it. I'm not tall enough yet. I have to climb up on the lid to reach it. Mommy said hurry up because we want to get moving before the Agent comes. Call me when you're ready and I'll flush it for you. And be quiet. Don't wake the boys. When I came back to the kitchen Beulah said Come and eat this oatmeal while it's hot, chile. Mommy said there isn't time and Beulah said this chile ain't leavin here without something hot and wholesome in her belly and I ate it. It was delicious with raisins and brown sugar in it.
Then we got our coats on and went down the stone stairs into the street and it was cold. Zeke had the suitcase and I held on to Mommy's Mouton sleeve all the way to the subway. Even when Zeke said when we get to the corner turn right and go around the block. I'll meet you on the next corner. We went right and he went left. Mommy said it was in case we were being followed. But we didn't see anybody. Till we saw Zeke again on the next corner. He was holding our valise and I was glad to see it cause my doll, Mitzi, was in it. I was glad to see the subway station too. Those colored balls were so familiar. Even though I did not know before that they went everywhere.
You could take the train all the way to anywhere. I once went to Far Rockaway. Now we were in just plain Faraway. It must be Faraway because we took the Downtown to 125th St. Wait till I tell Ruthie and Beaty that the train goes way past 125th Street. But then they'd say how do you know that and I could not tell them so I better not say anything. There's a whole lot a things I know that I can't tell.
At 125th Street we got off. Zeke got off too but he just kept walking and went to the stairs to Uptown and Abe Asheroff came and took the suitcase . I know him so it felt familiar. I thought we were going home. But Mommy called him Tom. In Brooklyn he was Abe and I liked him. Sometimes when he came to visit he brought me presents. Crayolas and colored paper. Or paper doll cut outs.
We followed him to a different platform. It said Downtown A Local. When the train came I got on but the doors closed before Mommy and Abe or Tom or whatever I was supposed to call him got on and the train lurched and sped out of the station and got faster and faster and made a racket but I heard Mommy yelling get off at the next station and the wheels grinding and screeching and finally it pulled into the next station and I got off and just stood there like stone. There was a policeman on the station and I thought maybe I should tell him I was lost. But then I would have to tell him my mother was at 125th Street and we went Underground and he would think I was crazy and then the next train came and the doors opened and my mother and Abe/Tom got off right in front of me and I ran to my mother's mouton coat and finally cried.
At 42nd Street Mommy said lets get some hot chocolate and we all got off the train. I held tight to her coat all the way up the stairs to the street. It was cold out but at least it was daytime. We went to the Automat near Chock Full of Nuts and Tom/Abe went to make a telephone call and when he came back he said it was okay and we could go home now and I got to put the nickels in and the hot chocolate was the best in the world. I took Mitzi out of the suitcase, Tom picked up up a New York Daily News and we took the Seventh Avenue Express and roared past all the stations toward home. When we got to Hoyt Street the windows were all lit up and the mannequins were still there wearing A&S and Martin's Department Store clothes that Mommy liked and I knew how to get home from there. I wasn't lost anymore.
Grampa was on the stoop and he said So, you two decided to come home and he gave me a big hug. He picked me up and carried me in just like I was a baby and I held onto his neck and wouldn't let go. Pa, you'll break your back, Mommy said and he said Lez mir alain, you broke my heart you stupid kid. He put me down and he gave Mommy a big hug like she was lost and he said Promise me, no more names on Yellow Leaflets. I had to wait till three o'clock for Beaty and Ruthie to come home from school when I could tell them my adventure. But then where would I say I was. Mommy said to tell them I was at Cousin Seymour's on Allerton Avenue in the Bronx because it was a Jewish neighborhood. If I said I went to Harlem their mothers wouldn't let me play with them.
The next morning I got up, got dressed, ate my cereal and went back to school. Mrs. Solnick said I'm glad you're back we missed you and read the note from my mother out loud. "Please excuse my daughter, Rachel's, three week absence from school. A family emergency prevented her from attending." Mrs. Solnick looked at me like she didn't believe it and said "Tell your mother I think she's a very brave woman." After a minute she said, "You can also tell her that you'll stay after school every day this week so you can make up for the work you lost."
from the April 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine