The Life of Johnston

Original Sin

I have a soft spot for plagiarists. I’m not talking about frat boys getting term papers off the internet. That’s cheating and knowing that you’re cheating. But there’s something strange and touching about plagiarism like Melania Trump’s—or Joe Biden’s so many years ago. How could they have thought they’d get away with it? They must have been convinced by some temporary trick of the brain that they were speaking their own words.

I can imagine Melania dutifully studying the speeches of other nominees’ wives and then coming up with her own version, and imitation somehow crossing over into outright quotation. Part of the problem must be that all political speech is full of canned phrases. Your truth-o-meter has to be turned way down low to write any workmanlike set-piece political speech. And from that state of mind, or absence of mind, it’s an easy step to outright word-for-word parroting.

And it’s not like Michelle Obama’s words were so original. Work hard; respect others. That’s been said before. Michelle put it across a lot better. And of course it was foolish of Melania to copy the exact phrases. Your word is your bond. Oh dear. Michelle must really have made an impression on her.

But I’m trying to get to a story that my friend Kelly told me. When she was in high school, a song came to her in a dream: words, tune, harmonies, it was all there, perfect. She woke up and wrote it down in a frenzy of inspiration. Then she went to the piano to play it, and it was Elton John’s Someone Saved My Life Tonight, note for note.

The difference between Kelly and a plagiarist is that she recognized the song when she heard it, so she never passed it off as her own. But for long, convincing minutes she believed she’d been inspired. The sensation was delicious.

Reading this over, I see that my explanations are unsatisfying. Maybe Melania knew exactly what she was doing and just expected to get away with it. Either way, I feel sorry for her. Her position seems false from beginning to end.


Julian: An Interview by Melissa Ureña

This is the last piece in my mini-series of other people’s writing about immigration. It’s by Melissa Ureña, a student of mine at UCSB sixteen years ago. The assignment was: interview someone and edit the interview into a narrative. She interviewed her father. I guess I should add that this piece was published in Spectrum in 2001.


Why did I come here? I wanted to make some money so I could go back to Mexico and build a home. You know, marry somebody someday, have a place to live, some money to spend. And I was young, twenty-one, tired of seeing the same town, the same people, going to the same places. It was 1969. Time for some adventure. Time to go north.

I went to San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico. I was told that I could find family there to help me get here. All I found was a job that put buckets of cement on my head. I had to carry them upstairs, a hard and tiring thing to have to do. I couldn’t afford to go out because I was saving money to get to the United States. I worked and I killed time at a pool hall where I never played pool. Hope grows dim. I didn’t see any hope of coming here through there so I went back to Manzanillo.

A cousin named Nico called me one day, “Hey, I heard you tried to go to the States but didn’t have much luck.” “Yeah, I couldn’t find anyone,” I said. “Well, I’m going there. I know the way. I go back and forth all the time. If you want, let’s go.” It was nighttime when we jumped the border. There was a rusty green Valliant waiting for us on the other side that Nico had put there. We jumped over the fence, ran into the car and were off. We swam across the American Canal, holding our clothes in a plastic bag over our heads. We swam with one arm and held our clothes with the other. Both grew sore.

We got a job in Newcastle picking pears, prunes and peaches. The locals said the place was safe. When you got to a new place you always asked if it was safe. Word was that immigration never went there, so we stayed and we worked. We were cooking beans after work one day without shirts or shoes, just our jeans, all of us at ease except Nico. “I have a feeling,” he said. “Maybe we should leave.” “You heard the people. It’s safe. Don’t worry.” He left, later he told me that he had gone to the fields to pray. The door of our house was facing West toward the setting sun. Against its escaping light we saw silhouettes. We couldn’t make out the details of the figures, but we knew they weren’t our people because we saw belts and we saw guns.

Nico had returned by then and we tried to run away but there was nowhere to go. There was a single hill ahead and flat ground after. We would have been running in the open air. There was a river behind our house that was mostly mud. There were bushes around it and I hid in one of them. My feet were bare. I was feeling the gravel, rocks and dry sticks on my soles when I ran. The bottoms of my feet got so irritated that I didn’t feel the broken bottle that made a gash about this big on the side of my foot. I still have the scar. It is thirty years later.

Our house had a single door. When we ran out of it, the police officers were already on the path that led to it. They saw where we went. One of them stood over the bush I was in, pointing his finger and yelling at me to come out. At first I didn’t come out, but he got angry and there was nowhere to go. When I stepped out, he yanked me and handcuffed me. “¿Donde están los otros?” he asked. They knew two or three phrases in Spanish. “Where are the others?” was one of them. I said there were no others. “¡Dos Mas! ¡Dos Mas!” he yelled while shaking two fingers in front of my face. I saw my cousin Nico some feet ahead. I stared at him, not being able to talk, but trying to tell him to get away. I pointed toward the free air with my eyes and head. He just turned his back to show me his hands. They were cuffed. They had caught him too.

The ground behind me became red like a royal carpet as they walked us away. One of the cops told me I was bleeding. It wasn’t till then that I looked at my foot and saw a cut on its side, generously spilling out the redness of the carpet I left behind. We were up to our knees in mud and still without shirts or shoes, so they took us back home to change. We knew we were going to need extra clothing where we were going. We put on two shirts, two pairs of jeans, and our one pair of tennis shoes. I bandaged the cut as best I could, but when I walked I felt it bleed and I knew the bandage wasn’t enough.

The officers were young, about twenty years old, happy because they had just caught themselves two Mexicans. We heard them behind us singing La Cucaracha through obnoxious laughter. We stopped at a fruit stand along the road. They bought us fruit drinks and told us to drink up because they would be our last. They weren’t our last.

When we arrived at Lincoln City Hall, they handcuffed one of our hands to the metal screen that separates them from the backseat and went inside. Nico turned to me and said, “I have a feeling we can get out of this.” “What? You’re crazy. How? You know that once you’re in the car, there is no getting out.” “Well, I don’t know. I have a feeling. Do you have your handkerchiefs with you?” I used to carry two handkerchiefs with me then. When you’re working your nose gets runny and you need them. I gave him one. He tightened it into the form of a rope and wrapped it around the stump where the handle for the window used to be. They took those off of the doors. All that was left was a short piece of metal with teeth around it. Nico wrapped the handkerchief around the teeth and began to turn it. The window went down. “There! You see!” “Yes, but what about the handcuffs?” “I don’t know, but at least we know that the window goes down.” The cops appeared in the rearview mirror. They were coming back. I quickly put the handkerchief away and we did our best not to look excited. We sat pretending nothing had changed since they left.

We made one a last stop at Marysville to pick up another guy. It was Sacramento from there, then jail, then deportation. The cops parked the car in front of a house. One of them went inside and the other sat on the windshield facing away from us. He turned around routinely to eyeball us. The handcuffs were off by then. Our hands were free. Nico said hurriedly, “Give me the handkerchief. This is it, our chance.” He rolled the window down and stuck his arm out to open the door from the outside. He left it open, but close enough to the car that it appeared closed at a glance. “Come on! Let’s go!” he said. I was trembling. I can’t tell you if it was fear, excitement, or fever. The cut had made feverish by then. Nico yelled, “Let’s go! This is it. From here it’s Sacramento and then jail. There won’t be another way out. We have to go NOW!” “No, my foot hurts. I can’t run. Leave. You leave. I’ll stay.” “If I go and you stay, they’ll hurt you. They’re animals. I am not leaving if you don’t come.” I saw the cop sitting so close to us and I saw Nico so excited, so ready to go, but I felt my foot, it was aching, I felt my state of mind, it was aching too. “I can’t.” Time was running out and we were both very tense. Nico was pleading with me. “It’s now or never. We have to go.” I was trembling but I knew what I had to do. We waited until the cop eyeballed us one last time. As soon as his face disappeared, we jumped out of the car.

We pushed the door back close to the car, being careful not to make any noise. We squatted real close to the ground, and using the parked cars as cover, we walked away. When we were no longer in his line of sight, we sprang to our feet and ran. I swear I felt them behind us. I ran with my body arched forward because I felt their hands reaching for me, their fingers almost touching me. I forgot about my fever. The adrenaline cured my cut. We came across eucalyptus trees. We tried to climb them to hide between the branches, but no matter how hard we tried we couldn’t. We kept sliding off. They were too smooth and we were too anxious.

“Look,” I said, “We can’t make the same mistake we made last time. We can’t hide, we have to run. We’ll run until we fall, until we can’t run anymore.” So we began to run. We ran from nine at night until one the next morning. We walked the rest of the dark way. There was an ocean of blood in my shoe. Every time my foot crashed on the ground, I felt warm squirts of it between my toes. We came upon a river that we couldn’t cross. We had been running for too long, we were hot, sweaty, and heaving. The cold water would have killed us. If we had gotten a cramp, that would have been it for us. We walked along its side for a while. My mind began to trick me. “Shh, listen,” I said, straining my ear. “Do you hear dogs?” I swear I heard hounds barking. They were after us. I knew they were coming. The river was winding back to Marysville. We couldn’t keep following it. “We’re gonna have to swim,” I said. The moon was full above us. We squatted to catch its light against the tide. It wasn’t as long as the first part we saw, so we jumped in and swam across.

When we came out we saw long rows of trees. By the time we reached them, we were both very thirsty. We climbed the fence around the trees and were in farming lands. Big wooden crates slouched between the trees. I made one of them my bed while Nico looked for water. The moist ground dense with vegetation was mosquito heaven. A thick blanket of them buzzed around my head, intensifying the exhaustion vertigo I was in. When we were running in the dark, I fell headfirst into a piece of barbed wire and cut my head. It was bleeding too. I was a feast for the critters. Nico took off his shirt and put it over my face to keep them away. I don’t remember anything from then on.

It was about five in the morning when I regained consciousness. Nico’s face was close to me, shaking me, telling me to wake up. He had found water. It was dark, murky, in puddles on the ground because someone over-watered the grass. That is what we drank. The sky wasn’t dark anymore. The sun was spreading its light, giving form to things. We saw men coming out, getting ready to work the fields. We approached a white fellow who was in a tractor. Nico and I knew very little English. He said one word and I said the other, but we managed to get this story across: We were out with some buddies last night and we got very drunk. Our friends got mad at us and left us here. We don’t know where we are but we need a ride to Newcastle. The man said he couldn’t help us because he couldn’t leave work. We should talk to the man standing by the shed.

We did and we gave him the same story, but he couldn’t help either. He offered to call a cab for us. There was a phone next to him in the shed but he went inside to make the phone call. I told Nico, “This doesn’t look right. We’re both dirty, muddy, our hair looks like we just got struck by lightning. They didn’t buy our story. If he was going to call a cab he could have done it with the phone next to him.” We left, disappeared into the trees and out of the farm. We couldn’t afford to take any chances.

Through the greenery we found a highway. “Wait,” I said, “What are we going to do? We can’t keep walking without direction. We have two choices. We can go back to Marysville and take our chances with the police, or we can stand here and hope that someone will give us a ride.” We couldn’t go back. We saw car after car zoom by for hours. Finally one stopped on the road ahead and reversed. They were two Latino men. “Hey,” they said, “What is going on?” We gave them the story and asked them for a ride to Newcastle where we worked for a Japanese man. They were hesitant. The driver said he was looking for work for his friend. We offered them twenty dollars and a job at Newcastle. They accepted and we left.

We entered the nerve-wracking terrain of Marysville. Nico and I slouched into our seats trying to conceal ourselves from enemy eyes that could be lurking outside. The car began to circle the area, to slow down. It was about nine in the morning and the guys were getting hungry. They wanted to stop and eat. “We’re really in a hurry to get to where we’re going,” we said. “Well, we’re hungry,” they said. “Look, I will give you four dollars right now. I’ll fix you something to eat when we get to Newcastle, and we’ll get your friend a job, but we have to leave now. We can’t stop.” After glances amongst each other and some time of careful consideration, the guys put the car on the road out of Marysville. Nico and I wiped the sweat off of our foreheads.

When we arrived at Newcastle our boss didn’t want to give us our jobs back. He thought that the law had let us go in return for other immigrants. He didn’t want to lose his workers. The guys that picked us up explained how they had found us, but it was hard to convince him that we had gotten away. We were caught at six in the afternoon and we were back by ten the next morning. No one ever comes back that quickly. No one could believe it. After hearing how the guys had found us, he gave us all jobs. He sent Nico and me to his brother’s farm in case immigration went back. Word spread that we had gotten away from la migra. On Saturday everyone came to our place with thick slabs of meat to grill and six-packs of beer to drink. They all wanted to know how we did it. It was legendary.

After that time we came back and forth a lot and mostly without trouble. The first time I was scared because I had never been here. I didn’t know anything. After that it was fun and games. We were young and we didn’t have families, so we didn’t take it seriously. We laughed at the trouble we got into. Immigration officers were power icons. If we got away from them, our reputation grew, along with our egos.

Despite that, we were always worried. One day some utility people drove by in an official-looking car. They were wearing green suits and belts with tools that we perceived as guns. Four workers were there illegally. We ran. A young white guy named Mark worked there after school. He ran too. We were pumping our knees and elbows trying to get away as fast as we could, when all of a sudden we see him running in front of us. He ran faster than all of us put together. We jumped a barbed wire fence. Once on the other side, we stopped and looked around with heaving chests. “Hey, Mark, why are you running?” “Well, why are you running?” “We saw immigration.” “No, that was the utility man. I was just running because I saw you guys running.” We fell to the ground with tears in our eyes, laughing so hard that our bellies began to ache. Mark didn’t think it was funny. He told us not to laugh, but we couldn’t help it. I have not forgotten his name to this day.

Work in the fields wasn’t always funny. It was hard. I remember picking grapes because they were the hardest. The vines were at waist level. We were on our knees the whole time. They pay you for the amount of grapes you pick. We woke up at four in the morning and gave it our all until about one in the afternoon when it got too hot to work. Actually, at twelve it was already too hot to work. The sun really began to beat down on us, to hit us with its inferno. Your back hurts, it is suffocating, you see miles of fields in front of you. It makes you delirious. When you pulled the bundles of grapes some of them popped and spilled their juice on your face. It dries into syrup. When you shake the vines the dirt and dust falls on your face and is glued there by the syrup. When it’s all over, you can take your nail and scrape layer after layer of the day’s work from your face. You get thirsty but you don’t want to go get a drink of water. It is too far. The lost time will cost you at the end of the week. You take a handful of grapes and squeeze their drilling sweetness into your mouth. I got so tired of it that I couldn’t eat grapes for a long time after.

Behind the harsh curtain of the fields, there was beauty and untouchable peace. I had no worries or frustrations about bills, violence, traffic jams. What I did have were Sundays, my days off, when I could wake up late to watch the fruit in bloom. Beds of colors stretched out as far as my eyes could see. It was hypnotizing. February and April mornings were my favorite. Their coldness was the best excuse to prepare a hot cup of coffee and light a cigarette to smoke while watching the bees and smelling the flowers.


Suicide and Salami

June 16-25

Dear Max,

I’ve stopped writing because I’m on a Russian/Soviet reading kick: Voices From Chernobyl and Second Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich. And now Gulag by Anne Applebaum. It’s terrific fun. I’ve never been able to understand why people get depressed by books about terrible things. I get depressed by upbeat blogs about animals, gardens and children. Fuck the children. Give me the Gulag.

The Alexievich books are long interviews edited into narrative. And they’re great, astounding, how did she do it? You can tell that she took notes and used a tape-recorder, because the interviewees say things like, “turn off the tape” or “write this part down.” But she doesn’t say how extensively edited the interviews are. My guess is, she did a lot of editing, a lot of selecting, a lot of moving stuff around. Because the interviews have all the naturalness of speech without any of its awkwardness and triviality. And they’re so good.

Also, I shouldn’t say I guess because I went online to find out and read some interviews with Alexievich where she describes her method. She meets with her subjects multiple times and end ups with hundreds of pages of transcripts. From that she distills the narrative that ends up in the book. And she somehow doesn’t mess it up.

An alternative title could be Suicide and Salami because both are mentioned in almost every interview. Of course, that hits the wrong tone. But you do realize after a while that hunger, violence, heroism and despair are big parts of Soviet and now Russian life. And the passionate love affair with alcohol is always there.

And the wars. They’re so present. Almost everyone mentions beating Hitler, even those born long afterward. Many mention that they could have beat the West. They were prepared to do it. A feeling of being at war seems never to have left them.

And then the disappointments of capitalism and democracy—how people read so much more back when there was censorship. A poet could fill a stadium. There’s something touching about that censored, hungry, heroic Soviet life. Of course you’d never want to go back, but infinite choice has its drawbacks.

I told Teresa some of the stories from the book, and it sounded like a catalog of horrors. But it’s not that. It’s a catalog of humanity. And ominous. An empire rising from its knees is dangerous.

The Applebaum book is great too, but it’s more straight history, not the addictive miracle that Alexievich pulls off. It’s scholarly and responsible.

I don’t know why I’m so set on these Russians. I know almost nothing about our own history, especially the less attractive parts. But I’m not really in it to learn. I’m in it for pleasure, and this is what landed in my hands that I don’t want to put down. Teresa and Enzo are about to go to the library, and so in a few minutes it’ll be just me in the hammock with mojitos and Gulag—heaven.

Guest Post: Why I Do Not Dismiss Trump

6 June 2016

Dear Max,

A few posts ago I outed my dad as a possible Trump voter. Here is his reply. It’s too long for the comments.

My daughter Kate posted the following in her blog. “My dad’s argument for Trump goes something like this: he’s winning. The anti-immigrant racism, the woman-hating, the freakish self-regard—it’s all strategy. It’s a pose for getting votes, and it’s working. Trump wouldn’t govern like that. He’s a con man, but he hasn’t conned himself. And in our system of checks and balances, he couldn’t do all the outrageous things he’s promised, even if he wanted to.”

My Comments: The reason that I might vote for Trump is rooted in my libertarian and, more importantly, in my anti-elitist political philosophy. We pride ourselves on our democratic political system. But that’s not what we actually have. Our system is controlled by a tiny political elite with essentially the same set of values regardless of political party. (One commentator hit the nail on the head when he said: “We’re going to end up with a moderate Republican—Hillary.”) I despise this elite—mostly because their touchy-feely liberalism masks their fundamental arrogance.

And I watched with great interest and amusement over the past months the behavior this elite. They were initially dismissive of Trump. Then they tried to push back. But all the while, ordinary folks kept voting for Trump. The elite squirmed and danced around the question of how to respond to the phenomenon of Trump.

In our political system, folks who win elections get to hold office. Our Founding Fathers understood that sometimes the popular vote might elect someone who was not the best. To deal with this eventuality, they set up a system of checks and balances. They anticipated that from time to time the system would put jackasses like Trump into positions of power. They devised a political system that would moderate and limit the damage.

It is now a virtual certainty that Trump will be nominated. In November it will be Trump v Hillary. And it is entirely possible that Trump might become President.

I would like our society to move in the direction of more personal responsibility, less nanny-state socialism and an end to our current state of overseas meddling and perpetual war. For those who share this view, a vote for Trump is not irrational.

—Stewart Johnston




3 June 2016

Dear Max,

I’m continuing my literary series on immigration. It’s fun and way easier than writing anything myself. This is from Resident Alien, Quentin Crisp’s journal about emigrating from London to New York with no money.

Quentin Crisp happens to be legal immigrant. The title Resident Alien refers to his green card. But I make no distinction morally or economically between legal and illegal immigration. I’m in favor of both. In fact, if immigration is good because it brings grit and gumption into our national life, then maybe illegal immigration is better because it’s so much harder. You have to really want it, like Ana in the previous post.

I don’t know how famous Quentin Crisp is or how much explanation is needed here. Surely all my readers have Crispiness well in mind. But you need to know what he looked like for parts of the passage I’m about to quote to make sense: old, obviously gay, wearing a men’s suit, high heals, lots and lots of makeup, long nails and big rings, hair done up in some mysterious way, often a hat. Think Marlene Dietrich but an old white man. (He was eighty-six the year he wrote Resident Alien, and I think that qualifies.)

He writes that he has always been American in his heart. But what I love about him has a lot to do with what I think of as English virtues: the restraint, the wit, the good manners. My idea of Englishness comes from English law and literature. Quentin Crisp’s idea of Americanness comes from the movies. We’re probably both off the mark, but we’re wrong in the right direction.

I have always been American in my heart, ever since my mother took me to the pictures (silent). She did this in a spirit of ostentatious condescension. Films, she said, were for servant girls. Anyone with any taste went to the theatre. When I began to gibber with excitement, she warned me that movies were greatly exaggerated—that America was nothing like it was portrayed on the screen. I suspected that she was wrong and that everyone over here was beautiful and everyone was rich.

Though not everyone is rich, everyone is beautiful. This is due to the addition of a Mediterranean ingredient. For instance, in the district where I live, Spanish is spoken. The shopkeepers speak American to you but they gibber away in their native tongue to one another. Those who are not Spanish are Greek or Italian. That means that their lips are curly, their nostrils are flared, their eyelids are as thick as pastry. When I was only English, I asked an American soldier if he thought there was an English face. Immediately he said Yes. Then I asked if it looked as though there was not enough material to go round. To this he also agreed. The English have flap lips, papery eyelids, prominent jawbones and Adam’s apples. We are an ill-favoured race. I recognize that now that I live here.

A huge man sitting next to me on a bus going up Third Avenue asked me if I lived here permanently. When I said that I did, he remarked, ‘It is the place to be if you are of “a different stripe”.’ There are so many different nationalities, so many different income groups, so many different sexes, that the freaks pass unnoticed. People have always imagined, or pretended to imagine, that I seek to provoke hostile attention. This is rubbish. What I want is to be accepted by other people without beveling down my individuality to please them—because if I do that, all the attention, all the friendship, all the hospitality that I receive is really for somebody else of the same name. I want love on my own terms.

Here I, have it. I was standing on Third Avenue waiting for a bus when a black gentleman walked by. When he noticed me, he said, ‘Well, my! You’ve got it all on today.’ And he was laughing. In London, people stood with their faces six inches from mine and hissed, ‘Who do you think you are?’ What a stupid question. It must have been obvious that I didn’t think I was anybody else. (8-9)

The American people have done so much for me, have restored so fully my self-confidence, that I am constantly twisting and turning in an effort to live up to their expectations of me. Ingrid Bergman said, ‘You must go on the stage knowing they want you to succeed.’ She meant American audiences. In England the people in the stalls sit back in their chairs with folded arms, saying in their stony hearts, ‘We’ve paid a hell of a lot for these seats. We hope you’re going to DO something.’ In Manhattan, the audience is leaning forward eagerly, crying, ‘Tell us!’ You can tell them anything—how to be beautiful, how to be successful, how to be thin, how to be saved. They will listen intently.

As a friend remarked, I decided to come to America at an age when most people decide to go into a nursing home. I wish I could have come here sooner when I had the energy and the optimism to fling myself with more abandonment, more total commitment, into all opportunities for self-promotion that are offered to me, but I couldn’t pay my fare. When I say this people laugh nervously as though it were a joke, but it is the ugly truth. I never earned more than twelve pounds a week in my life in England. There it was enough. My old age was taken care of by Mrs. Snatcher. When the day came when I could no longer see or hear or walk, she would spread her iron wings over me. But I would have been saving up for three years to spend three hours in Manhattan so I waited until I was invited by Mr. Bennett, the darling of the Shubert Theaters, to visit Manhattan.

That is the story of my life: I go where my fare is paid. (15)

I guess I should have mentioned that he was also a performer: small roles in movies, and he did a one man-show where he just talked. Here’s what he looked and sounded like.

Quentin Crisp on David Letterman 1985

Breathe Free

2 June 2016

Dear Max,

A few days ago, I was trying to write about immigration and why I think it’s great. It’s not a subject I’m qualified to write about, but I have some other people’s writing in mind, and I’m going to spend a few days on that.

This first piece is from Bob Blaisdell’s great, nothing-like-it Have They Got Stories To Tell. It’s about Bob teaching in New York City and his students, who come from all over the world. About half the book is the students’ writing. This is from a travel story by Ana. In the story, she’s visiting friends in Japan, working illegally and having many adventures. She’s from Peru. And now she wants to come to the USA:

The day I went to the American Embassy I dressed up with the best dress I had. I would try to make them believe I had money.   I was wearing high heels that felt as if they were choking my feet. I guess because they were new and I wasn’t use to wearing shoes at all but sneakers only for about two years. My heart was pounding like crazy, trying to fill out the little application sheet they had in a not too big room full of people mostly Japanese. I finished filling out the application using my poor knowledge in the English language. Actually I pretty much guessed what those questions meant. It was the first time I had to fill out a visa application. I guess that is why I was so surprised that the application would have questions such as crimes committed in one’s own country or diseases that one might have had. While reading those questions and answering no to all of them, I wondered if there was ever somebody who did actually answer yes to any of those questions; I think not.

There I was on the line, getting ready to be next, when I saw the person who was going to interview me. He was a totally gringo kind of guy. Tall as a basketball player, blond as the corn, and proud as a bottle of Budweiser. As soon as I got to the window, he asked for my passport. I had it in my hands, so I just put it in front of him. However, as soon as he saw that it was Peruvian, he refused to take it. “You have to go back to your country and get your visa there. This is for Japanese people only,” he said, pushing my passport back to my side of the window. I pushed my passport back to his side and told him that I didn’t understand what he was saying and told him that I needed somebody who spoke Spanish to communicate with. The guy was getting very annoyed by my sturdiness, he would push my passport and airplane tickets back to my side in a ruder and ruder manner, telling me, “Youuu haveee tooo gooo backkk tooo yourrr countryyyyy.” As if the higher and longer he vocalized the faster I would understand what he was trying to tell me. Very soon all the people in the room knew what was going on. I didn’t care. I figured that my only chance to get a visa was with somebody who spoke Spanish. “They have to have somebody who speaks Spanish,” I kept on telling myself. After holding the line for about ten minutes, embarrassing myself, and annoying the poor gringo guy for the same amount of time, he took my passport and asked me to wait for somebody who would come to speak in Spanish to me. I waited for over an hour when they finally called my name. I approached the window from where my name was called and saw this guy who right away started talking to me in perfect Spanish. He told me basically the same thing the other guy had told me but in Spanish. While he was talking I guessed he was half Mexican because of the slightly Mexican accent he had. This made me feel more comfortable to talk to him. Actually to lie to him. “Why are you denying me the opportunity to visit your country,” I said. “I just want to stay there for a month or so. If it is because of the money, don’t worry, I have money to go there. Look, my father gave me these tickets because I just got into a very difficult to get into university. Come on, this is my last opportunity to travel around the world, after this I will have to study, study; I won’t have time to travel. Please, can I have it, please.” I kept on telling the guy how rich my family was, how ridiculous it was for me that I would leave my high standard of living in Peru to go to work as labor or god knows what in America. I would keep on talking this way every time he opened his mouth to say, “Yes, but . . .” He kind of kept quiet for a few seconds, then asked me, “How much money do you have to go to America?”

“Over three thousand dollars,” I said, hoping the guy didn’t ask me to pull them out.

“Do you have it in cash or in traveler’s checks?” he asked.

“I have it in cash, but I don’t have the money with me right now, I left it in the place where I am staying,” I said.

“How about you change that cash you have in traveler’s checks, it is always safer to carry traveler’s checks than cash, and come to see me tomorrow, with the traveler’s checks, under your name, of course. That is, if you don’t have a problem changing it.”

“No problem!” I said, trying to figure out how was I going to come up with that kind of money. “But, I might not be here tomorrow because I have some previous plans, but I’ll be here the day after tomorrow or the following day, at the latest. I’ll see you. Thank you very much.” And I left.

I was very disappointed at my interview with both of the immigration officers. I thought that I could fool them. I was wrong. My last chance to get the American visa was to come up with 3,000 dollars that I didn’t have. I would have to ask somebody to lend me the money, after all it was just for a matter of hours. I would get the money, exchange it for traveler’s checks, bring them to the American Embassy, show it to the officer, get my visa, exchange the money back in yenes and return the money from whom I got it in the first place. Now I just needed somebody who would trust me enough to lend me the money. Toshio, who was the most likely person, was in the Philippines, Fanny had credit all around her town, but she never carried money, her husband wouldn’t give it to her. My friend Tomiko didn’t have any money. They were pretty much all the people I knew I could count on, and that could trust me with such a large amount of money.

It was kind of late when I got home that night, but Matsuo was still awake. I made some tea and then he asked, “Do you want to talk about . . .” He didn’t finish, he stood up, held his tea with his left hand close to his body, pointed to the ceiling with his right arm and kept his head still, like looking at something on the wall across from us. I couldn’t help bursting into laughs, he looked so funny, wearing his pajamas, making his impersonation of the Statue of Liberty. A while later, I told Matsuo all that had happened in the American Embassy. Afterwards, I was tempted to ask him to lend me the money, but I didn’t, I didn’t want to embarrass myself asking him for the money. I knew he wouldn’t lend me the money, he hardly knew me. But I was wrong. He himself offered to lend me the money the very next day. He said I would lose at least 100 dollars with the exchange, but I didn’t care. Next day we left early in the morning, went to his bank, and withdrew 3,000 dollars from his savings account. He gave me the money and went to work. I exchanged the money for traveler’s checks and went to the American Embassy. I got on the only line there was and looked at the officer taking care of it. It was the same officer who wouldn’t take my passport! I was scared. I thought it was over, unless I could remember the other officer’s name and ask for him directly. However, I couldn’t remember his name.

I stood on the line, and the officer looked even meaner than the day before. I was about to go to the end of the line waiting for a miracle to happen, when I saw the other officer appear and take his place. I was full of anxiety. I wanted him to get over with the person ahead of me, so that he could take care of me before the blond mean officer came back. By the time he said, “Next,” my legs were totally out of control, shaking like crazy.

“Hi, do you remember me? I was here yesterday. I brought you the money you asked for. You know, the traveler’s checks,” I said, while he was looking at me like I was some sort of lunatic, talking in some ancient language completely incomprehensible to him. “You told me that if I changed the cash I have to traveler’s checks, you would give me the visa I need to visit America,” I said, trying to be as polite and friendly as I could.

“Oh! You’re the girl from Peru. I remember you now. But I didn’t say I would give you the visa, I said I would try to get you a visa. Now, let me get this to my supervisor and let’s see what happens. Okay?” he said, walking to the office in back of the counter.

I waited there for at least three hours. Maybe the guy was trying to delay the bad news, maybe they called Peru and found out that all I had said was just a bunch of lies. How could I have been so stupid and lied to an American immigration officer. Didn’t I know better than that? They probably have computers where they place your name and know everything they need to know about you. No! Impossible, they can’t do that. There I was in the waiting room deliberating with myself what Americans can and cannot do, when I heard my name called. I rushed to the window and received my passport back. I didn’t want to open it there because I was sure I was going to show emotion, whether they gave me the visa or not. I held my passport tight in my hands, until I reached the outside door. I opened it and there it was, a beautiful stamp, red and blue words written, “The United States of America Nonimmigrant Visa Issued at Tokyo.”

I think that was one of the happiest days of my life. I was going to America! The country where all the dreams can come true. The country where hard work, dedication, and perseverance pay off. There would be the place I would call home.

That very same afternoon, I changed the money back to yenes and returned them to Matsuo. He was right, I lost over 150 dollars in the transaction, but it was more than worth it. I was going to America!

Eight days after I got my visa I was in New York. Three weeks later, I was working, checking bags and packets, in a supermarket. Two years after I arrived in Kennedy Airport I was attending fulltime college and working as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant.

After living four years in New York, I have, many times, heard all the criticism American people have against immigrants. From the rude “Go back to your country, bastards, you are taking the jobs away from us, real Americans,” to the condescending, “Poor people who come to America with the erroneous idea that they would become rich over night or they, poor creatures, thought that money was hanging on the trees in America.” I particularly didn’t think that money was hanging on the trees, however I did think that America would give the opportunity to be myself. I guess it is kind of difficult for an American to understand why so many people want to come here. Being an immigrant myself, I guess I could tell you that it is like getting accepted to go to Harvard or Yale, you know it will be hard, it will be painful, there will probably be many nights that you won’t be able to sleep, and most of all that you won’t have immediate rewards for your efforts. Yet, knowing all of this to be the truth, would you go? If you had the chance?

When I first started looking through the book for this story, I wanted to use it as evidence in my argument against Trump. And it’s great evidence. But as I paged through and started reading here and there, I lost interest in my argument, Trump, who my dad votes for, Our Democracy. I just wanted to read the stories, including Bob’s story.

That’s what great writing does. It makes you bigger than your opinions. (It’s temporary, but I’ll take it.)

Pride & Prejudice

1 June 2016

Dear Max,

A few days ago I found out that my dad might might vote for Donald Trump in the general election. This astounds me. I never thought that reasonable life-long Republicans would do that. I also haven’t given up hope of changing his mind between now and November. I consider it my duty as a citizen to try. And also my duty to try to understand why he might vote for Trump in the end.

My dad works for a Republican county supervisor who’s up for re-election. And he says that most of the voters he comes across don’t know anything about politics or policy or who their elected representatives are or what they do, so it’s easy to lie to them and be believed, which my dad’s boss’s opponent is doing.

So, starting from the premise that the voters know nothing and don’t want to know anything, my dad’s argument for Trump goes something like this: he’s winning. The anti-immigrant racism, the woman-hating, the freakish self-regard—it’s all strategy. It’s a pose for getting votes, and it’s working. Trump wouldn’t govern like that. He’s a con man, but he hasn’t conned himself. And in our system of checks and balances, he couldn’t do all the outrageous things he’s promised, even if he wanted to.

I’m restating the argument in terms that make it look as bad as possible. I wish I could come up with the words and tone for a thoughtful argument in favor of voting for Trump. But I don’t have that kind of imagination. Maybe my dad will supply it in the comments.

But as for the substance of the argument, I think that’s a fair summary. And, overlooking the double-dyed cynicism—is he right? Politically? Is thoughtful, truthful speech a political death sentence?

I wish I could think of a Republican example of political speech that’s complicated and fair and doesn’t render the speaker unelectable. I’m sure one exists. I don’t think my dad’s boss will be lying like crazy just to get re-elected, and as for thought—that’s what my dad’s for. He is very smart, in a pure thinky way.

But the example of thoughtful speech that comes most readily to mind is Barak Obama in 2008, during the primary after the news broke about his former pastor’s “God damn America” sermon. Does anyone remember that? Obama spoke about race and history. He said the hardest things on the hardest subject. He was complicated, truthful—and politically brilliant. He gave the voters credit, and they gave it back.

We’re not so dumb.

Obama Speech


My mind keeps going back to some guys that Enzo and I met when we went camping last weekend. We needed electricity to inflate our princess-in-the-pea style camping mattresses. They’re about three feet high, so you can’t just blow them up with your lungs. We could have walked to the bathroom to plug in, but these guys were right across from us, and they had a solar generator that I felt sure they’d like to show off. So I asked them for some juice.

Of course they said yes, and we talked about camping and weather and where we were from. They gave a detailed explanation of the solar generator. One of them had soldered the solar cells together himself. The inflation and talk went on for a long time because the generator wasn’t that powerful, so it took about ten minutes for the first mattress to even start to inflate. The slowness became awkward. Surely they didn’t want to spend two hours talking to us while our mattresses inflated. But unplugging and inflating elsewhere seemed to disrespect their techy generosity. Eventually I did get out of it, and we inflated the mattresses at the bathroom. And it all ended friendly. The next day the two guys were wearing matching black T-shirts that said:



And the box next to GUN OWNER was checked. I wondered if it was reassuring or the opposite that most of the people who disagree with me about important subjects are perfectly nice guys. We’re all just people together! This must be good, right? But it also means that it doesn’t take a bunch of bad guys to come up with some seriously bad policy.

Another scene of political life: a few weeks ago one of my pals at work and I were walking the stairs for exercise, and in the time it took us to walk from the 6th floor to the 17th, I persuaded her to switch her vote from Hillary to Bernie, and she persuaded me to do the opposite. So the candidates ended up where they started, vote-wise. Her argument was: think what it means to my daughter not to have had a woman president—and Hillary’s ridiculously qualified. My argument was: Sanders is the only candidate in either party who’s not in thrall to AIPAC. And he may have a better chance of beating Trump in the fall. And wouldn’t it be interesting to have our first Jewish president?

Yesterday Teresa and I filled in our ballots, and I voted for Hillary. I wonder if my friend went for Sanders.


I’m wanting to say something more about Trump. It’s the anti-immigrant stuff that really gets me. First of all, it’s not about immigration, it’s about race. It’s only the brown immigrants that he doesn’t like. Most of Trumps wives have been immigrants, judging by their various accents. Obviously he didn’t have a problem with them taking the job away from all those hard-working American women. Or maybe the job of being Trump’s wife is so demeaning that American women don’t want to do it.

And don’t tell me that it’s about the law, that he just wants everyone to immigrate legally. He’s never even made that claim. He’s never said that we need legal immigration that’s rationally related to our economy. And of course the ban on Muslim immigration would be a ban on all immigration, including legal immigration of refugees. And the ban itself would be totally illegal and unAmerican.

He’s a racist. Those white supremacists know one when they see one. They’re not deluded about their love for him. Trump is the original Birther. Remember that absurd business about Obama releasing his long-form birth certificate? Trump led that back in 2008. And now Trump won’t even release his tax returns. The nerve.

But I can feel the subject that I’m trying to get to slipping away. I dislike that man so much that it’s distracting.

We—the USA—have a special place in the world, and it’s related to immigration. People want to come here. They see something about us that we can’t even see about ourselves. It’s partly about money. It has something to do with the conversations I had with my camping neighbors and my friend at work and my Republican relatives. We can talk to each other. We’re a mixed and mixed-up society. And as Obama said in his 2008 speech, in no other country on earth would his story be possible. The people who want to come to this country admire the hell out of that. They long for it. We should be honored by their hopes.

My Short Happy Cleaning Life

Dear Max,

On Saturday, while Teresa was on a doggy playdate with Colin, I cleaned the living room. I waited until she was gone because I know that my cleaning drives her crazy. There’s no method to it. Everything is turned upside down, and I do things in a strange order, as the impulse takes me. It’s like a natural disaster.

Enzo helped me move all the furniture out. I swept and then we cleaned the wood floor with Murphy’s oil soap, lots of warm water and a bunch of raggedy towels. It’s a rectangular room with a high curved ceiling. Empty, it felt like a mini-gym, as if there should be a lines painted on the floor and a small basketball hoop at each end. Enzo kept sliding in his socks and shouting to make an echo. Pete came in and started lapping soapy water off the floor. I sent them away.

I was on my hands and knees in the middle of a big sudsy puddle, scrubbing and thinking, “I wish I hadn’t started doing this.” Then I remembered an interview I heard on the radio a while ago. It was about a guest worker program, and the reporter said something about how Americans (meaning Anglos) don’t want to do farm work. The farmer he was interviewing said, “They don’t have the skills to do farm work. Harvesting crops is skilled labor.” And I knew that cleaning is also skilled labor and that I’m not very skilled at it.

Still, it turned out well. It smelled good. We got all the furniture back in place. Enzo dusted a bit. I cleaned the coffee table on both sides of the glass. I was exhausted, but satisfied.

The whole scene reminds me of a job I had after college picking up trash and cleaning the bathrooms at El Capitan State Beach. On Mondays we sprayed every surface inside the bathrooms with a horrible blue chemical. Then we scrubbed like crazy and rinsed it all off with a hose.

One Monday a big shot from the State Parks was driving around inspecting us. I was doing a bathroom by myself for some reason. (We usually worked in pairs.) I came out of the bathroom as he was getting out of his truck. And he just started cracking up. My clothes were sopping, every stitch. My wet hair was dripping into my face. My boots squelched as I walked toward him. And he laughed and laughed. He was a middle-aged black guy. He slapped his knee and wiped away tears. Eventually—when he could speak again—he said something like, “Girl, you gotta pace yourself.”

I don’t know if he actually said that or if that’s the impression I got from his complete amusement.


Warning: Long & Literary

6 May 2016

Dear Max,

Yesterday I read Doris Lessing’s essay “A Small Personal Voice.” It’s about Art and Communism. (I know. Ew. And it is a little dated, but in a good way. It’s a Cold War period piece.)

But the part I like is when she explains why she loves the great big novels of the 19th century. Explaining why she keeps re-reading them she says:

I was not looking for a firm reaffirmation of old ethical values, many of which I don’t accept; [She was a total commie.] I was not in search of the pleasures of familiarity. I was looking for the warmth, the compassion, the humanity, the love of people which illuminates the literature of the nineteenth century and which makes all those old novels a statement of faith in man himself.

And later on she says what a mistake it would be for writers to turn their attention away from the Soviet Union and China and India and Africa, just because the Soviet Union was turning out so badly. She says something like, that’s where the drama of our time is playing out. That’s where the big justices or injustices are going to happen. England, you’ll never be the center of attention again, and you don’t even know it.

And I find it sort of delightful that she wrote that in 1957, right around the time Vikram Seth was born in India. (I just checked the date, he was five years old.) And up he grew and wrote A Suitable Boy, which is as big and warm and real as one of those Victorian triple-deckers.

So she was right.

7 May 2016

Dear Max,

My reading life is in the dumps. Would I really be reading Doris Lessing if I had any other prospects? Not that there’s anything wrong with her, but come on. Art and Communism?

On Monday, during my lunch break, I started The Cherry Orchard. I forced myself finish the first Act. But no more. The next day I had my volunteer gig at school, and I accosted one of the other moms, a native Russian speaker. “Why is it supposed to be interesting? What’s it even about? I mean, they’re losing their estate, but I couldn’t even tell if they cared.” The kids came in, so she didn’t have time to answer and just as well. It probably wasn’t fair to hold her personally responsible for Russian literature. For starters, she’s Lithuanian.

But gee whiz. In the whole Portable Chekov (stories, plays, letters) by far my favorite part was the letters. Maybe I’m losing patience with fiction. I can’t remember any of the people in those stories. I remember Chekov, his voice and presence under it all, but that came through so much more directly in the letters. So, I guess I’ll go read more of those.

But I want to get back to my impatience with fiction, which gets worse with age. One symptom is that the fiction I do like is so autobiographical that I just read it as non-fiction. And then I get confused. Like a while ago I read Isaac Babel’s The Story of My Dovecote and First Love, which are pretty much one story, or two chapters that go together. I also read a bunch of his other stories, but those two were my favorites because they seemed to be straight from life. And they just about stop your heart.

And then I read up on Babel on Wikipedia and learned that his early life was a little bit different from the life in those stories. And that felt strange to me. I didn’t like it.

Anyway, here are the two stories. I didn’t type them myself. The full text of “The Story of my Dovecote” was cut-and-pasted from a blog called Writing that Matters by Mark McBride. I don’t know what edition or translation he took it from. I did make a few corrections, which I mention only so that if there are any mistakes, they should be taken as mine, not his.

The text of “First Love” I cut and pasted from a pdf of The Complete Works of Isaac Babel edited by Nathalie Babel and translated by Peter Constantine. Converting pdf documents into Microsoft Word is a finicky chore, so there may be mistakes arising from that. Those should be attributed to my lazy fingers and not to the editors of that book. I’d appreciate being informed of any typos.


The Story of My Dovecot by Isaac Babel

To M. Gorky

When I was a kid I longed for a dovecot. Never in all my life have I wanted a thing more. But not till I was nine did father promise the wherewithal to buy the wood to make one and three pairs of pigeons to stock it with. It was then 1904, and I was studying for the entrance exam to the preparatory class of the secondary school at Nikolayev in the Province of Kherson, where my people were at that time living. This province of course no longer exists, and our town has been incorporated in the Odessa Region.

I was only nine, and I was scared stiff of the exams. In both subjects, Russian language and arithmetic, I couldn’t afford to get less than top marks. At our secondary school the numerus clausus was stiff: a mere five percent. So that out of forty boys only two that were Jews could get into the preparatory class. The teachers used to put cunning questions to Jewish boys; no one else was asked such devilish questions. So when father promised to buy the pigeons he demanded top marks with distinction in both subjects. He absolutely tortured me to death. I fell into a state of permanent daydream, into an endless, despairing, childish reverie. I went to the exam deep in this dream, and nevertheless did better than everybody else.

I had a knack for book-learning. Even though they asked cunning questions, the teachers could not rob me of my intelligence and my avid memory. I was good at learning and got top marks in both subjects. But then everything went wrong. Khariton Efrussi, the corn-dealer who exported wheat to Marseille, slipped someone a 500-rouble bribe. My mark was changed from A to A-, and Efrussi Junior went to the secondary school instead of me. Father took it very badly. From the time I was six he had been cramming me with every scrap of learning he could, and that A- drove him to despair. He wanted to beat Efrussi up, or at least bribe two longshoremen to beat Efrussi up, but mother talked him out of the idea, and I started studying for the second exam the following year, the one for the lowest class. Behind my back my people got the teacher to take me in one year through the preparatory and first year courses simultaneously, and conscious of the family’s despair, I got three whole books by heart. These were Smirnovsky’s Russian Grammar, Yevtushevsky’s Problems, and Putsykovich’s Manual of Early Russian History. Children no longer cram from these books, but I learned them by heart line upon line, and the following year in the Russian exam Karavayev gave me an unrivaled A+.

This Karavayev was a red-faced, irritable fellow, a graduate of Moscow University. He was hardly more than thirty. Crimson glowed in his manly cheeks as it does in the cheeks of peasant children. A wart sat perched on one cheek, and from it there sprouted a tuft of ash-colored cat’s whiskers. At the exam, besides Karavayev, there was the Assistance Curator Pyatnitsky, who was reckoned a big noise in the school and throughout the province. When the Assistant Curator asked me about Peter the Great a feeling of complete oblivion came over me, an awareness that the end was near: an abyss seemed to yawn before me, an arid abyss lined with exultation and despair.

About Peter the Great I knew things by heart from Putsykovich’s book and Pushkin’s verses. Sobbing, I recited these verses, while the faces before me suddenly turned upside down, were shuffled as a pack of cards is shuffled. This card-shuffling went on, and meanwhile, shivering, jerking my back straight, galloping headlong, I was shouting Pushkin’s stanzas at the top of my voice.   On and on I yelled them, and no one broke into my crazy mouthings. Through a crimson blindness, through the sense of absolute freedom that had filled me, I was aware of nothing buy Pyatnitsky’s old face with its silver-touched beard bent toward me. He didn’t interrupt me, and merely said to Karavayev, who was rejoicing for my sake and Pushkin’s:

“What a people,” the old man whispered, “those little Jews of yours! There’s a devil in them!”

And when at last I could shout no more, he said:

“Very well, run along, my little friend.”

I went out from the classroom into the corridor, and there, leaning against a wall that needed a coat of whitewash, I began to awake from my trance. About me Russian boys were playing, the school bell hung not far away above the stairs, the caretaker was snoozing on a chair with a broken seat. I looked at the caretaker, and gradually woke up. Boys were creeping toward me from all sides. They wanted to give me a jab, or perhaps just have a game, but Pyatnitsky suddenly loomed up in the corridor. As he passed me he halted for a moment, the frock coat flowing down his back in a slow heavy wave. I discerned embarrassment in that large, fleshy, upper-class back, and got closer to the old man.

“Children,” he said to the boys, “don’t touch this lad.” And he laid a fat hand tenderly on my shoulder.

“My little friend,” he went on, turning me towards him, “tell your father that you are admitted to the first class.”

On his chest a great star flashed, and decorations jingled in his lapel. His great black uniformed body started to move away on its stiff legs. Hemmed in by the shadowy walls, moving between them as a barge moves through a deep canal, it disappeared in the doorway of the headmaster’s study. The little servingman took in a tray of tea, clinking solemnly, and I ran home to the shop.

In the shop, a peasant customer, tortured by doubt, sat scratching himself. When he saw me my father stopped trying to help the peasant make up his mind, and without a moment’s hesitation believed everything I had to say. Calling to the assistant to start shutting up shop, he dashed out into Cathedral Street to buy me a school cap with a badge on it. My poor mother had her work cut out getting me away from the crazy fellow. She was pale at the moment, she was experiencing destiny. She kept smoothing me, and pushing me away as though she hated me.   She said there was always a notice in the paper about those who had been admitted to the school, and that God would punish us, and that folk would laugh at us if we bought a school cap too soon. My mother was pale; she was experiencing destiny through my eyes. She looked at me with bitter compassion as one might look at a little cripple boy, because she alone knew what a family ours was for misfortunes.

All the men in our family were trusting by nature, and quick to ill-considered actions. We were unlucky in everything we undertook. My grandfather had been a rabbi somewhere in the Belaya Tserkov region. He had been thrown out for blasphemy, and for another forty years he lived noisily and sparsely, teaching foreign languages. In his eightieth year he started going off his head. My Uncle Leo, my father’s brother, had studied at the Talmudic Academy in Volozhin. In 1892 he ran away to avoid doing military service, eloping with the daughter of someone serving in the commissariat in the Kiev military district. Uncle Leo took this woman to California, to Los Angeles, and there he abandoned her, and died in a house of ill fame among Negroes and Malays. After his death, the American police sent us a heritage from Los Angeles, a large trunk bound with brown iron hoops.   In this trunk there were dumbbells, locks of women’s hair, uncle’s talith, horsewhips with gilt handles, scented tea in boxes trimmed with imitation pearls. Of all the family there remained only crazy Uncle Simon-Wolf, who lived in Odessa, my father, and I. But my father had faith in people, and he used to put them off with the transports of first love. People could not forgive him for this, and used to play him false. So my father believed that his life was guided by an evil fate, and inexplicable being that pursued him, a being in every respect unlike him. And so I alone of all our family was left to my mother. Like all Jews, I was short, weakly, and had headaches from studying. My mother saw all this. She had never been dazzled by her husband’s pauper pride, by his incomprehensible belief that our family would one day be richer and more powerful than all others on earth. She desired no success for us, was scared of buying a school jacket too soon, and all she would consent to was that I should have my photo taken.

On September 20, 1905, a list of those admitted to the first class was hung up at the school. In the list my name figured too. All our kith and kin kept going to look at this paper, and even Shoyl, my granduncle, went along. I loved that boastful old man, for he sold fish at the market. His fat hands were moist, covered with fish-scales, and smelt of worlds chill and beautiful. Shoyl also differed from ordinary folk in the lying stories he used to tell about the Polish Rising of 1861. Years ago Shoyl had been a tavern-keeper at Skvira. He had seen Nicholas I’s soldiers shooting Count Godlevski and other Polish insurgents. But perhaps he hadn’t. Now I know that Shoyl was just an old ignoramus and a simple-minded liar, but his cock-and-bull stories I have never forgotten: they were good stories. Well, now, even silly old Shoyl went along to the school to read the list with my name on it, and that evening he danced and pranced at our pauper ball.

My father got up the ball to celebrate my success, and asked all his pals—grain dealers, real-estate brokers, and the traveling salesmen who sold agricultural machinery in our parts. These salesmen would sell a machine to anyone. Peasants and landowners went in fear of them: you couldn’t break loose without buying something or other. Of all Jews, salesmen are the widest-awake and the jolliest. At our party they sang Hasidic songs consisting of three words only but which took an awful long time to sing, songs performed with endless comical intonations. The beauty of these intonations may only be recognized by those who have had the good fortune to spend Passover with the Hasidim or who have visited their noisy Volhynian synagogues. Besides the salesmen, old Lieberman who had taught me the Torah and ancient Hebrew honored us with his presence. In our circle he was known as Monsieur Lieberman. He drank more Bessarabian wine than he should have. The ends of the traditional silk tassels poked out from beneath his waistcoat, and in ancient Hebrew he proposed my health. In this toast the old man congratulated my parents and said that I had vanquished all my foes in single combat: I had vanquished the Russian boys with their fat cheeks, and I had vanquished the sons of our own vulgar parvenus. So too in ancient times David King of Judah had overcome Goliath, and just as I had triumphed over Goliath, so too would our people by the strength of their intellect conquer the foes who had encircled us and were thirsting for our blood. Monsieur Lieberman started to weep as he said this, drank more wine as he wept, and shouted “Vivat!” The guests formed a circle and danced an old-fashioned quadrille with him in the middle, just as at a wedding in a little Jewish town. Everyone was happy at our ball. Even mother took a sip of vodka, though she neither liked the stuff nor understood how anyone else could—because of this she considered all Russians cracked, and just couldn’t imagine how women managed with Russian husbands.

But our happy days came later. For mother they came when of a morning, before I set off for school, she would start making sandwiches; when we went shopping to buy my school things—pencil box, money box, satchel, new books in cardboard bindings, and exercise books in shiny covers. No one in the world has a keener feeling of new things than children have. Children shudder at the smell of newness as a dog does when it scents a hare, experiencing the madness which later, when we grow up, is called inspiration. And mother acquired this pure and childish sense of the ownership of new things. It took us a whole month to get used to the pencil box, to the morning twilight as I drank my tea on the corner of the large, brightly-lit table and packed my books in my satchel. It took us a month to grow accustomed to our happiness, and it was only after the first half-term that I remembered about the pigeons.

I had everything ready for them: one rouble fifty and a dovecot made from a box by Grandfather Shoyl, as we called him. The dovecot was painted brown. It had nests for twelve pairs of pigeons, carved strips on the roof, and a special grating that I had devised to facilitate the capture of strange birds. All was in readiness. On Sunday, October 20, I set out for the bird market, but unexpected obstacles arose in my path.

The events I am relating, that is to say my admission to the first class at secondary school, occurred in the autumn of 1905. The Emperor Nicholas was then bestowing a constitution on the Russian people. Orators in shabby overcoats were clambering onto tall curbstones and haranguing the people. At night shots had been heard in the streets, and so mother didn’t want me to go to the bird market. From early morning on October 20 the boys next door were flying a kite right by the police station, and our water carrier, abandoning all his buckets, was walking about the streets with a red face and brilliantined hair.   Then we saw baker Kalistov’s sons drag a leather vaulting-horse out into the street and start doing gym in the middle of the roadway. No one tried to stop them: Semernikov the policeman even kept inciting them to jump higher. Smernikov was girt with a silk belt his wife had made him, and his boots had been polished that day as they had never been polished before. Out of customary uniform, the policeman frightened my mother more than anything else. Because of him she didn’t want me to go out, but I sneaked out by the back way and ran to the bird market, which in our town was behind the station.

At the bird market Ivan Nikodimych, the pigeon-fancier, sat in his customary place. Apart from the pigeons, he had rabbits for sale too, and a peacock. The peacock, spreading its tail, sat on a perch moving a passionless head from side to side. To its foot was tied a twisted cord, and the other end of the cord was caught beneath one leg of Ian Nikodimych’s wicker chair. The moment I got there I bought from the old man a pair of cherry-colored pigeons with luscious tousled tails, and a pair of crowned pigeons, and put them away in a bag on my chest under my shirt. After these purchases I had only forty copecks left, and for this price the old man was not prepared to let me have a male and female pigeon of the Kryukov breed. What I liked about Kryukov pigeons was their short, knobbly, good-natured beaks. Forty copecks was the proper price, but the fancier insisted on haggling, averting from me a yellow face scorched by the unsociable passions of bird-snarers. At the end of our bargaining, seeing that there were no other customers, Ivan Nikodimych beckoned me closer. All went as I wished, and all went badly.

Toward twelve o’clock, or perhaps a bit later, a man in felt boots passed across the square. He was stepping lightly on swollen feet, and in his worn-out face lively eyes glittered.

“Ivan Nikodimych,” he said, as he walked past the bird-fancier, “pack up your gear. In town the Jerusalem aristocrats are being granted a constitution. On Fish Street Grandfather Babel has been constitutioned to death.”

He said this and walked lightly on between the cages like a barefoot ploughman walking along the edge of a field.

“They shouldn’t,” murmured Ivan Nikodimych in his wake. “They shouldn’t!” he cried more sternly. He started collecting his rabbits and his peacock, and shoved the Kryukov pigeons at me for forty copecks. I hid them in my bosom and watched the people running away from the bird market. The peacock on Ivan Nikodimych’s shoulder was last of all to depart. It sat there like the sun in a raw autumnal sky; it sat as July sits on a pink riverbed, a white-hot July in the long cool grass. No one was left in the market, and not far off shots were rattling. Then I ran to the station, cut across a square that had gone topsy-turvy, and flew down an empty lane of trampled yellow earth. At the end of the lane, in a little wheeled armchair, sat the legless Makarenko, who rode about town in his wheel-chair selling cigarettes from a tray. The boys in our street used to buy smokes from him, children loved him, I dashed toward him down the lane.

“Makarenko,” I gasped, panting from my run, and I stroked the legless one’s shoulder, “have you seen Shoyl?”

The cripple did not reply. A light seemed to be shining through his coarse face built up of red fat, clenched fists, chunks of iron. He was fidgeting on his chair in his excitement, while his wife Kate, presenting a wadded behind, was sorting out some things scattered on the ground.

“How far have you counted?” asked the legless man, and moved his whole bulk away from the woman, as though aware in advance that her answer would be unbearable.

“Fourteen pair of leggings,” said Kate, still bending over, “six undersheets. Now I’m a-counting the bonnets.”

“Bonnets!” cried Makarenko, with a choking sound like a sob, “it’s clear, Catherine, that God has picked on me, that I must answer for all. People are carting off whole rolls of cloth, people have everything they should, and we’re stuck with bonnets.”

And indeed a woman with a beautiful burning face ran past us down the lane. She was clutching an armful of fezzes in on arm and a piece of cloth in the other, and in a voice of joyful despair, she was yelling for her children who had strayed. A silk dress and a blue blouse fluttered after her as she flew, and she paid no attention to Makarenko who was rolling his chair in pursuit of her. The legless man couldn’t catch up. His wheels clattered as he turned the handles for all he was worth.

“Little lady,” he cried in a deafening voice, “where did you get that striped stuff?”

But the woman with the fluttering dress was gone. Round the corner to meet her leaped a rickety cart in which a peasant lad stood upright.

“Where’ve they all run to?” asked the lad, raising a red rein above the nags jerking in their collars.

“Everybody’s on Cathedral Street,” said Makarenko pleadingly, “everybody’s there, sonny. Anything you happen to pick up, bring it along to me. I’ll give you a good price.”

The lad bent down over the front of the cart and whipped up his piebald nags. Tossing their filthy croups like calves, the horses shot off at a gallop. The yellow lane was once more yellow and empty. Then the legless man turned his quenched eyes upon me.

“God’s picked on me, I reckon,” he said lifelessly, “I’m a son of man, I reckon.”

And he stretched a hand spotted with leprosy toward me.

“What’s that you’ve got in your sack?” he demanded, and took the bag that had been warming my heart.

With his fat hand the cripple fumbled among the tumbler pigeons and dragged to light a cherry-colored she-bird. Jerking back its feet, the bird lay still in his palm.

“Pigeons,” said Makarenko, and squeaking his wheels he rode right up to me. “Damned pigeons,” he repeated, and struck me on the cheek.

He dealt me a flying blow with the hand that was clutching the bird. Kate’s wadded back seemed to turn upside down, and I fell to the ground in my new overcoat.

“Their spawn must be wiped out,” said Kate, straightening up over the bonnets. “I can’t a-bear their spawn, nor their stinking menfolk.”

She said more things about our spawn, but I heard nothing of it. I lay on the ground, and the guts of the crushed bird trickled down from my temple. They flowed down my cheek, winding this way and that, splashing, blinding me. The tender pigeon-guts slid down over my forehead, and I closed my solitary unstopped-up eye so as not to see the world that spread out before me. This world was tiny, and it was awful. A stone lay just before my eyes, a little stone so chipped as to resemble the face of an old woman with a large jaw. A piece of string lay not far away, and a bunch of feathers that still breathed. My world was tiny, and it was awful. I closed my eyes so as not to see it, and pressed myself tight into the ground that lay beneath me in soothing dumbness. This trampled earth in no way resembled real life, waiting for exams in real life. Somewhere far away Woe rode across it on a great steed, but the noise of the hoofbeats grew weaker and died away, and silence, the bitter silence that sometimes overwhelms children in their sorrow, suddenly deleted the boundary between body and the earth that was moving nowhither. The earth smelled of raw depths, of the tomb, of flowers. I smelled its smell and started crying, unafraid. I was walking along an unknown street set on either side with white boxes, walking in a getup of bloodstained feathers, alone between the pavements swept clean as on Sunday, weeping bitterly, fully and happily as I never wept again in all my life. Wires that had grown white hummed above my head, a watchdog trotted on in front, in the lane on one side a young peasant in a waistcoat was smashing a window frame in the house of Khariton Efrussi. He was smashing it with a wooden mallet, striking out with his whole body. Sighing, he smiled all around the amiable grin of drunkenness, sweat, and spiritual power. The whole street was filled with a splitting, a snapping, the song of flying wood. The peasant’s whole existence consisted in bending over, sweating, shouting queer words in some unknown, non-Russian language. He shouted the words and sang, shot out his blue eyes; till in the street there appeared a procession bearing the Cross and moving from the Municipal Building. Old men bore aloft the portrait of the neatly-combed Tsar, banners with graveyard saints swayed above their heads, inflamed old women flew on in front. Seeing the procession, the peasant pressed his mallet to his chest and dashed off in pursuit of the banners, while I, waiting till the tail-end of the procession had passed, made my furtive way home. The house was empty. Its white doors were open, the grass by the dovecot had been trampled down. Only Kuzma was still in the yard, Kuzma the yardman was sitting in the shed laying out the dead Shoyl.

“The wind bears you about like an evil wood-chip,” said the old man when he saw me. “You’ve been away ages. And now look what they’ve done to granddad.”

Kuzma wheezed, turned away from me, and started pulling a fish out of a rent in grandfather’s trousers. Two pike perch had been stuck into grandfather: one in to the rent in his trousers, the other into his mouth. And while grandfather was dead, one of the fish was still alive, and struggling.

“They’ve done grandfather in, but nobody else,” said Kuzma, tossing the fish to the cat. “He cursed them all good and proper, a wonderful damning and blasting it was. You might fetch a couple of pennies to put on his eyes.”

But then, at ten years of age, I didn’t know what need the dead had of pennies.

“Kuzma,” I whispered, “save us.”

And I went over to the yardman, hugged his crooked old back with its one shoulder higher than the other, and over this back I saw grandfather. Shoyl lay in the sawdust, his chest squashed in, his beard twisted upwards, battered shoes on his bare feet. His feet, thrown wide apart, were dirty, lilac-colored, dead. Kuzma was fussing over him. He tied the dead man’s jaws and kept glancing over the body to see what else he could do. He fussed as though over a newly-purchased garment, and only cooled down when he had given the dead man’s beard a good combing.

“He cursed the lot of ’em right and left,” he said, smiling, and cast a loving look over the corpse. “If Tartars had crossed his path he’d have sent them packing, but Russians came, and their women with them, Rooski women. Russians just can’t bring themselves to forgive, I know what Rooskis are.”

The yardman spread some more sawdust beneath the body, threw off his carpenter’s apron, and took me by my hand.

“Let’s go to father,” he mumbled, squeezing my hand tighter and tighter. “Your father has been searching for you since morning, sure as fate you was dead.”

And so with Kuzma I went to the home of the tax-inspector, where my parents, escaping the pogrom, had sought refuge.


First Love by Isaac Babel

When I was ten years old, I fell in love with a woman by the name of Galina Apollonovna. Her surname was Rubtsov. Her husband, an officer in the army, had gone to the Japanese War and returned in October 1905. He brought many trunks back with him. These trunks were full of Chinese things: folding screens, precious weapons-all in all, thirty poods. Kuzma told us that Rubtsov had bought them with money he had made serving in the engineering corps of the Manchurian Army. Others said the same thing. People found it hard to gossip about the Rubtsovs, because the Rubtsovs were happy. Their house lay right next to our property. Their glass veranda cut into a piece of our land, but my father had not quarreled with them about it. Old Rubtsov, the tax inspector, was known in our town as a fair man, he counted Jews among his acquaintances. And when his son, the officer, returned from the Japanese War, we all saw how lovingly and happily he and his wife settled down together. For days on end Galina Apollonovna would hold her husband’s hand. She didn’t take her eyes off him, as she hadn’t seen him for a year and a half. But I was horrified at her gaze, and looked away, shivering. In the two of them I was watching the strange and shameful life of all the people in the world, and I wanted to fall into a magic sleep to forget this life that surpassed all my dreams. Sometimes Galina Apollonovna would walk about her room in red shoes and a Chinese dressing gown, her braid hanging loose. Beneath the lace of her low-cut chemise I could see the deepening onset of her pressed-down breasts, white and swollen, and on her dressing gown dragons, birds, and hollow trees embroidered in silk.

All day she trailed about the house, a vague smile on her wet lips, bumping into the trunks that had not yet been unpacked and the exercise ladders that lay around on the floor. Whenever Galina bruised her leg, she would lift her dressing gown above her knees and croon to her husband, “Kiss my little booboo!”

And the officer, bending his long legs in dragoon’s breeches, spurs, and tight kidskin boots, got down on the dirty floor, and, smiling, shuffled crawling on his knees to her and kissed the bruised spot, the spot where her garter had left a puffy crease. I saw those kisses from my window. They caused me great suffering, but it is not worth describing because the love and jealousy of a ten-year-old boy resembles in every way the love and jealousy of a grown man. For two weeks I did not go to my window and avoided Galina, until a coincidence threw us together. The coincidence was the pogrom that broke out in 1905 in Nikolayev and other towns inside the Jewish Pale. A crowd of hired killers ransacked my father’s store and killed my Grandpa Shoyl. All this happened without me. That morning I had been out buying doves from Ivan Nikodimich, the hunter. For five of my ten years I had dreamed with all the fervor of my soul about having doves, and then, when I finally managed to buy them, Makarenko the cripple smashed the doves against the side of my face. After that Kuzma had taken me to the Rubtsovs. A cross had been drawn in chalk on the Rubtsovs’ gate, no one would harm them, and they had hidden my parents. Kuzma took me to their glass veranda. There, in the green rotunda, sat my mother and Galina.

“We’re going to have to wash our face,” Galina said to me. “We’re going to have to wash it, my little rabbi. Our whole little face is covered in feathers, and the feathers are all bloody.”

She hugged me and led me along the corridor with its sharp aroma. My head was leaning against Galina’s hip, and her hip moved and breathed. We went into the kitchen, and she put my head under the tap. A goose was frying on the tiled oven, flickering kitchenware hung along the walls, and next to the kitchenware, in the cook’s corner, hung Czar Nicholas I, decorated with paper flowers. Galina washed off the remains of the dove that were caking my cheeks.

“As handsome as a bridegroom, my pretty little boy,” she said, then kissed me on the lips with her puffy mouth and turned away.

“Your Papa,” she suddenly whispered, “your Papa is very troubled right now. All day long he has been wandering aimlessly through the streets. Go to the window and call him!”

Outside the window I saw the empty street with the enormous sky above it, and my red-haired father walking along. He wasn’t wearing a hat, and his red hair was tousled and wispy. His paper shirtfront was twisted to the side and fastened haphazardly with a button, but not the right one. Vlasov, a haggard workman in patched-up soldier’s rags, was doggedly following my father.

“No, we don’t need it!” he was saying in a fervent, wheezing voice, patting my father tenderly with both hands. “We don’t need freedom just so the Yids can trade freely! Just give a working man a life of bright. . . brightfulness . . . for all his big horrible toil! Give it to him, my friend! You hear me? Give it to him!”

The workman was patting my father, beseeching him. In his face, flashes of pure drunken inspiration alternated with drowsy despondence.

“Like wimps, that’s what our lives should be like,” he muttered, swaying on unsteady legs. “Our lives should be just like wimps, only without that God of the Old Believers. It’s from Him the Jews make a profit, no one else does!”

And Vlasov began shouting desperately about the God of the “Old Believers,” who took pity on no one but the Jews. Vlasov howled, stumbled, and tried to catch up with his mysterious God, but at that moment a mounted Cossack patrol blocked his path. An officer in striped trousers, wearing a silver parade belt, was riding at the head of the detachment. A tall peaked cap was perched on his head. The officer rode slowly, without looking left or right. He rode as if he were riding through a ravine where one can only look forward.

“Captain,” my father whispered, when the Cossack reached his side. “Captain,” my father repeated, falling to his knees in the mud and clasping his head .

“What can I do for you?” the officer answered, still looking forward, lifting his hand in its lemon suede glove to his peaked cap.

Up ahead, at the corner of Rybnaya Street, thugs were smashing our store and throwing out into the street boxes of nails, tools, and also the new portrait photograph of me in my school uniform.

“Over there,” my father said, without getting up from his knees. “They’re smashing everything I’ve worked for all my life, Captain! Why are they doing this?”

The officer muttered something, tapped his cap with his lemon suede glove, and tugged the reins, but his horse didn’t move. My father had crawled on his knees in front of it, brushing against its kindly, short, slightly shaggy legs.

“I will see to it!” the captain said, tugged at the reins, and rode off The Cossacks followed him.

They sat dispassionately on their high saddles, riding through their imaginary ravine, and disappeared around the corner of Sobornaya Street.

Galina again pushed me toward the window. “Get your Papa to come home,” she said. “He hasn’t eaten anything since this morning.”

And I leaned out the window.

My father turned around when he heard my voice. “My darling son,” he called out with indescribable tenderness.

He and I went up to the veranda of the Rubtsovs, where mother was lying in the green rotunda. Next to her bed lay dumbbells and an exercise machine.

“Those damn kopecks!” my mother said to us as we came in. “People’s lives, and children, and our luckless luck. You gave them everything! Those damn kopecks!” she shouted in a hoarse voice unlike her own. She shuddered convulsively, and lay quiet on the bed.

Then, in the silence, I began to hiccup. I stood by the wall with my cap pulled down and couldn’t stop hiccuping.

“Shame on you, my pretty little boy,” Galina said, smiling her haughty smile at me, and tapping me with the stiff flap of her dressing gown. She went over to the window in her red shoes and began to hang Chinese curtains on the extraordinary rod. Her bare arms drowned in the silk, the live braid moved over her hip. I looked at her with delight.

Learned boy that I was, I looked at her as at a distant stage lit by many lights. And I imagined I was Miron, the son of the coal merchant who sold coal on our street corner. I imagined myself in the Jewish Self-Defense Brigade. I could see myself walking around, just like Miron, in tattered shoes tied together with string. A dingy rifle hangs on a green strap from my shoulder, and I’m kneeling by the old wooden fence, firing shots at the murderers. Beyond the fence lies a vacant lot with heaps of dusty coal. My old rifle shoots badly, the murderers with their beards and white teeth are edging ever closer to me. I feel the proud sensation of impending death, and high, high up, high in the blue heavens, I see Galina. I see an opening cut into the wall of a gigantic fortress built with myriads of bricks. This crimson building looms over the side street with its badly tamped gray earth. On the parapet stands Galina. With her haughty smile she smiles from that inaccessible opening, her husband, the half-dressed officer, standing behind her back, kissing her neck.

In my attempt to stop hiccuping, I imagined all this in order to make my loving her more bitter, hot, and hopeless, and perhaps because so much grief is overwhelming for a ten-year-old boy. These foolish fantasies helped me forget the death of the doves and the death of Shoyl. I would have perhaps forgotten these deaths if Kuzma had not come onto the veranda with that terrible Jew, Aba.

It was twilight when they came. A weak little lamp, hiding in a corner, shone on the veranda-a twinkling lamp, a disciple of misfortune. “I have prepared Grandfather,” Kuzma said as he came in. “Now he’s lying nice and pretty—I brought the shamas too so he can say some words over the old man.”

And Kuzma pointed to shamas Aba.

“Let him whine a little,” Kuzma said amiably. “Stuff a shamas’ guts, and the shamas will pester God all night.”

Kuzma stood on the threshold, his good-natured, broken nose jutting in all directions, and warmly began telling us how he had bound the dead man’s jaw. But my father interrupted him.

“I would be thankful, Reb Aba, if you would pray over the deceased, I will pay you,” my father said.

“Pay me? But I’m worried you won’t pay,” Aba answered in a weary voice, laying his squeamish bearded face on the tablecloth. “I am worried that you will take my ruble and run off to Argentina, to Buenos Aires, and open a wholesale business there with that ruble of mine! A wholesale business!” Aba said. He chewed his disdainful lips and picked up the newspaper Son of the Fatherland, which was lying on the table. In this newspaper there was an article about the Czar’s manifesto of October 17, and about freedom.

“Citizens of free Russia,” Aba read haltingly, and chewed his beard, which he had stuffed into his mouth. “Citizens of free Russia, Happy Easter to you all, Christ has risen!” The old shamas held the shaking newspaper sideways in front of him. He read it drowsily, in a singsong voice, pronouncing the Russian words he did not know in the strangest way. Aba’s pronunciation of these words resembled the muffled babble of a Negro who has just arrived at a Russian port from his native land. It even made my mother laugh.

“I am being sinful,” she shouted, leaning out of the rotunda. “You are making me laugh, Aba! You should tell us how you and your family are doing?”

”Ask me about something else,” Aba mumbled without releasing his beard from between his teeth, and continued reading the newspaper.

”Ask him something else,” my father repeated, walking over to the middle of the room. His eyes, smiling at us through their tears, suddenly began rolling and fixed themselves on a spot invisible to all.

“Oy, Shoyl!” my father uttered in a flat, false, theatrical voice. “Oy, beloved Shoyl!”

We saw that he was getting ready to start hollering, and my mother forewarned us.

“Manus!” she shouted, tearing at my father’s breast, her hair becoming instantly disheveled. “Look what a state our child is in, can’t you hear him hiccupping? Can’t you?”

Father fell silent.

“Rakhel,” he said timorously, “I cannot tell you how unhappy I am about Shoyl.”

Aba went to the kitchen and came back with a glass of water.

“Drink, you little shlemazl,” he said, coming over to me. “Drink this water, which will help you as much as incense helps a dead man!”

And sure enough, the water did not help me in the least. My hiccups became stronger and stronger. A growl tore out of my chest. A swelling, pleasant to the touch, expanded in my throat. The swelling breathed, widened, covered my gullet, and came bulging out over my collar. Within the swelling gurgled my torn breath. It gurgled like boiling water. By nightfall I was no longer the silly little boy I had been all my life, but had turned into a writhing heap. My mother, now taller and shapelier, wrapped herself in her shawl and went to Galina, who stood watching stiffly.

“My dear Galina,” my mother said in a strong, melodious voice. “We are imposing on you and dear Nadyezhda Ivanovna, and all your family so much. My dear Galina, I am so embarrassed!”

With fiery cheeks my mother jostled Galina toward the door, and then came hurrying over to me, stuffing her shawl into my mouth to smother my groans.

“Hold on, my little darling,” mother whispered. “Hold on for Mama.”

But even if I could have held on, I wouldn’t have, because I no longer felt any shame at all.

That was how my illness began. I was ten years old at the time. The following morning I was taken to the doctor. The pogrom continued, but no one touched us. The doctor, a fat man, diagnosed an illness of the nerves.

He told us to go to Odessa as quickly as we could, to the specialists, and to wait there for the warm weather and bathing in the sea.

And that is what we did. A few days later I left for Odessa with my mother to stay with Grandfather Levy-Itskhok and Uncle Simon. We left in the morning on a ship, and by midday the churning waters of the Bug changed to the heavy green waves of the sea. This was the beginning of my life in the house of my crazed Grandfather Levy-Itskhok. And I bade farewell forever to Nikolayev, where I had lived the first ten years of my childhood.

It seems churlish to respond in any way but gratitude. And I don’t know why artistic truth—especially a sort of sustained miracle like those two stories—should be less great than plain-fact truth. But it is less great, at least to me.

It reminds me of when Johnson was asked about non-fiction that turns out to be pretty darn fictional, that is, faked. Someone asked him, “What’s wrong with changing the facts a bit, if it makes it more interesting?” And Johnson said, “It’s a picture of nothing.”

That’s all from memory, and I don’t believe in memory. Here’s from the book:

He said, ‘The value of every story depends on its being true. A story is a picture either of an individual or of human nature in general: if it be false, it is a picture of nothing. For instance: suppose a man should tell that Johnson, before setting out for Italy, as he had to cross the Alps, sat down to make himself wings. This many people would believe; but it would be a picture of nothing. ******* (naming a worthy friend of ours,) used to think a story, a story, till I showed him that truth was essential to it.’ (The Life of Johnson, early in the year 1776, page 583 in my Modern Library edition.)

That’s a different situation of course. Johnson was talking about stories that claim to be factual and aren’t. Babel wrote a short story. He never claimed it was fact. But from the way it’s written, it seems intended to be taken as fact. I mean the dates, the use of his own family name, the historic subject matter, the seemingly superfluous side-story about the relative who ended up in L.A. He has complete command of the medium. He meant for it to come off that way. So I do feel a bit—not betrayed. And not like it’s a picture of nothing. But it feels like a picture of less.

Babel, however astounding he is, will never be as important to me as Primo Levi or Quentin Crisp or Boswell, because they wrote plain fact. (Plain is hardly the word.)

There’s a voice in the back of my head asking where Elena Ferrante fits into all this. There’s another writer, like Babel, writing fiction that seems autobiographical to the point where you just take it as fact. At least I do. And then end up confused again.

Current Events

1 May 2016

Dear Max,

I’m depressed about my blog. Because of my grudging respect for Enzo’s privacy, I have to leave out the parts of my diary with the most life, so what’s left are my opinions and my fat. It’s a misrepresentation. I’m actually living a lot more than that.

Anyway, I have some notes here that have to do with Time and Justice. So that’s classy.

Around Easter, Enzo and I were at a playground near the airport in San Jose. Every ten minutes or so, a huge jet would come in for a landing—low and slow, right overhead, filling up the sky. It reminded me of my grandma Clara’s story about the first time she ever saw an airplane. She was buying an ice cream cone from a man who came around with a horse-drawn wagon, and there it was! An airplane! It was a marvel. Still is.

I asked grandma what kind of ice cream she got. She said, the only kind they had—vanilla.

Anyway, sitting in that park smack dab in the middle of Silicon Valley, I thought, it’s been quite a century. And maybe one of the things that makes recent life seem remote is the way technology has changed in the last hundred years—or the last twenty-five. Enzo can hardly believe that when Teresa and I met, we didn’t even have email, let alone cell phones or texting or Skype. It confirms our ancient-ness.

But when you think about people instead of the tools in their hands, history comes right up close. Teresa and I were talking today—how did it even come up?—about slavery. She said something like, “It just happened. You can see why black people are still upset about it.”

I thought about my friend Danyelle and her grandparents in Detroit. How after her grandma died, her grandfather had to move into an old folks home with almost all white people and how uneasy he felt there. And—I’m not sure if this was the same conversation—but around the same time she said, about her grandparents, “Their grandparents were slaves.” Oh.

At the time (Danyelle and I would have been in our early twenties) the grandparents of grandparents seemed like the definition of the olden days. Now I think about how the generations are connected, and how time flashes past, and I know that just happened, so recently that it’s almost still happening.

My grandma and the airplane and the ice cream cone. Or—another story—grandma’s grandma baking an angel food cake when grandma was a little girl. How her grandma scolded everyone, don’t slam the door, the cake might fall! Don’t run in the house—the cake might fall! Then the chimney caught on fire—people running in and out, firemen, water, emergency, but the house didn’t burn down, and when it was all over someone said, “The cake!” And it came out perfect.

I’ve told that story to Enzo a few times. He could tell it to you. So the generations are connected. It’s comforting and disturbing how the past is with us.

I’m a little reluctant to bring this down to an opinion. It goes almost without saying that we have to make reparations for slavery and its aftermath. It’s with us. It’s in our lives right now.


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