The Half-Life of Nat Glickstein
_____________________________________________________________________________________________ BARBARA FRIED
When he was in his mid-forties, my father worked briefly in the Returns department at Macy’s. It wasn’t the most serious hiring mistake ever made—there was Spiro Agnew, for starters. But in its own way, it was a beaut. For Macy’s, that is. For Nat Glickstein, the Scourge of Herald Square, it was a dream job. Installed in his third-floor redoubt between Ladies’ Coats and Lingerie, he was all that stood between civilization and the swarm of thieving customers battering at its walls. My father would listen impassively as they spun their tall tales of mysteriously damaged merchandise and conveniently lost receipts, and then he would inform them that where he came from, there was a name for them (goniffs), and they should be grateful that he was going to let them turn around and walk right out of the store without calling security.
Up to a certain point, I suppose it might have been in Macy’s best interest to have a paranoid lunatic working in Returns, but my father passed that point by lunchtime on his first day. It took Macy’s another month to realize what they were dealing with. They fired my father the Friday before Christmas. He of course blamed it on anti-Semitism, notwithstanding that at the time, Macy’s was owned by a Jew, and half of its employees were Jews. (“What, you think they’re not smart enough to cover their tracks?” my father said, when someone brought up that inconvenient fact.) When he got home that night, he ripped the flap off a large corrugated box, punched two holes in one end, threaded a piece of twine through the holes to serve as a neckstrap and, with a black crayon swiped from my prized 64-piece Crayola set, printed on the smooth side of the cardboard: “Macy’s Final Solution: Fire all the Jews.” Except that he ran out of room on the right-hand margin, so what the poster board actually said was:
Macy’s Final Sol-
Fire all the Jews
The next morning, my father woke me up at seven. “Get up and get dressed, Seth,” he said. “It’s about time you learned something about how the world works.” I was only ten, but I was already pretty sure that my father wasn’t the most reliable source on that subject. But from his tone of voice, I knew this was a command performance.
We arrived at Macy’s a few minutes before nine. It was about twenty degrees out, with an unpleasant cold, damp wind. A huge crowd of last-minute Christmas shoppers was gathered in front of the main entrance on Broadway, waiting for the store to open. My father positioned himself by the entrance, slipped the poster board over his head, pulled down the earflaps on his cap, and glared at the crowd, just daring them to be rude enough to stare at the sign he had dragged all the way down from Washington Heights so they could stare at it. I staked out a position against the wall as far from him as I thought I could get away with.
After a couple of minutes, a woman on the edge of the crowd walked over to get a better look. Stumped, she motioned to her friend to come over. Pointing to the mangled “Jews,” she said to her friend, “I can’t read this, can you?” as if my father weren’t standing there, or were deaf, or too stupid to know what was written on his own sign. “Jeans? Fire all the jeans? That doesn’t make any sense.”
That was all my father needed. “What’s the matter with you, you don’t know how to read? It says ‘Jews.’ Ever heard of them? You know, the ones you won’t let into your fancy schools and country clubs.” Nine a.m. and his day was made.
At that moment, mercifully, the doors opened and the crowd pushed in. But for me, it was just a temporary reprieve. All day a steady stream of new victims showed up, lured over to my father by the not-quite-readable sign and then snared in his trap. It was, in its way, a brilliant piece of street theater, a running one-line gag, like Woody Allen’s famous hold-up note in Take the Money and Run. It took me another twenty years to appreciate the humor.
After two hours, my father signaled for me to come over. I pushed off the wall and walked towards him nonchalantly, with a quizzical look on my face meant to communicate to the world that I had no more clue than any of the rest of them who this madman was or what he could possibly want from me. “I have to use the toilet,” he said, lifting the poster board over his head. “You take over until I get back.”
Terror can give you courage you didn’t know you had. I looked him in the eye and shook my head. My father must have been stunned—it was my first (and last) act of open defiance. He threw the board down in disgust and walked into Macy’s (yes, Macy’s) to use their facilities. When he returned, I had resumed my place against the wall, but several feet farther away, instinctively sensing that my moment of courage had won me a little more freedom.
By four, Macy’s had had enough and called in the police. Two officers showed up, expecting to find a true lunatic, Bellevue material. Instead they found my father: a sad-looking, reasonably well-dressed man in his forties who, after being hauled down to the station and put through the paces, not only knew the year, the month, and the day of the week, but could also recite the US presidents backward and forward and list the noteworthy acts of anti-Semitism committed by each of them. Except, of course, Franklin Roosevelt, the sentimental favorite. The police released him back into the wild, with a warning not to go within five hundred yards of Macy’s.
That night my father pounded out a letter to the editors of the New York Times denouncing the management of Macy’s as a bunch of anti-Semites, which of course he knew the Times editors would never publish, self-loathing Jews that they were. And so my father’s brief career as a political activist came to an end.
After that, he got a job as a vacuum salesman, which he was fired from after one week (a complaint from a customer, we never heard the details). Then he got a job as a counterman at a deli. He lasted one day (don’t ask). He was out of work for months after that, moping around the house, until Aunt Ethel came to the rescue.
Aunt Ethel was my mother’s older sister, and one of the few success stories in my family. When she was a girl, she began collecting dolls. By her early twenties, she was running a profitable mail-order business out of my grandparents’ apartment, importing dolls from around the world and reselling them to collectors. By the time I came along, Aunt Ethel was rich enough to have made it across the Hudson, that great River of Rivers that divided the Jews who made it from the Jews who didn’t, settling in the wilds of Teaneck, New Jersey. She never married, and lived a life of almost unimaginable freedom, or so it seemed to me. She went where she wanted, had friends in exotic-sounding places like Montevideo and Marrakesh, and spoke three languages, not counting the Yiddish she’d left behind in Washington Heights.
I adored Aunt Ethel, and looked forward to her visits the way a drowning man looks forward to air. On one visit, I remember, Aunt Ethel said to me, “When you get a little older, Seth, maybe you’d like to come to South America with me.” I looked at her hard—a desperate look meant to convey, on the one hand, that I would like that more than life itself, and on the other, that if she was just toying with me, it was the cruelest thing that woman had ever done to man.
Over the years, I concocted an elaborate fantasy that, I’m afraid, reveals the obvious influence of my reading habits at the time, in which Aunt Ethel, after witnessing my father yell at me about some insignificant infraction, would say, “That’s it. It’ll break my heart if I have to watch you treat this boy as if he were a common grocer’s child one day longer. All this boy needs is some love.” And with that, she would grab my arm and announce to my astonished parents, in classic Dickensian eccentric savior-aunt fashion, “Seth is coming to live with me.” And out the door we would march, Aunt Ethel and I, headed for her palace across the Hudson, as my parents watched, helpless and ashamed, realizing too late what they had lost.
In the event, I had to make do with Aunt Ethel’s irregular visits to our apartment. My father refused to visit her in New Jersey (“She wants to see us, she can come here”), and she rarely made it to ceremonial family gatherings. But whenever some business brought her to Manhattan, she’d try to make the long trek up to Washington Heights to see my mother and me.
After my father had been out of work for about six months, Aunt Ethel came by one Saturday afternoon. My father (not coincidentally) was out, and while my mother made coffee, I sat down at the kitchen table with Aunt Ethel. Every visit from Aunt Ethel started the same way. I’d sit there shyly, and finally she would say, “So tell me every little thing that is new and exciting in Seth Glickstein’s life.” I always rehearsed my answers ahead of time, trying to cobble together from the unpromising raw material of my life a portrait of someone Aunt Ethel might actually want to take with her to South America one day. But when my big moment came, I usually lost my nerve.
On that particular Saturday, I remember, Aunt Ethel asked me if there was a girl I liked at school. “Not really,” I said, lying, and then added, in my most grown-up voice, “I don’t have time for girls. I’m studying too hard.” I waited for her to ask what I was studying, so I could give her the answer I had rehearsed—something about the English monarchy and Shakespeare—an answer that, in my thirteen-year-old view, was definitely worthy of someone you’d want to take to South America, although only dimly related to what this particular thirteen-year-old was doing with his days. But my plan was derailed by my mother’s arrival at the table with coffee, along with a plate of cookies from the fancy German-Jewish bakery in the neighborhood that she frequented only when Aunt Ethel was coming to visit.
My mother sat down at the table.
“So,” said my mother.
“So,” said Aunt Ethel.
I knew that was my cue to leave, but I didn’t want to leave. I sat there and picked the colored sprinkles off my cookie, one by one, making a tidy pile of them on the side of the plate. Finally my mother said, “Seth, I want to talk to Aunt Ethel alone for a little while. Why don’t you go read in your room?”
I left, but instead of the bedroom, I parked myself in the living room, where I was out of sight but not earshot.
“There’s no point in getting Nat a job where he’s got to work with other people,” Aunt Ethel said. “He’s just going to be fired.”
“I know,” my mother said.
“I’ll talk to Sollie,” Aunt Ethel said. “He must have something Nat can do.”
Sollie was the other successful member of my extended family—a cousin of my mother’s and Ethel’s who ran a thriving business making those tasteless hard noodles you used to find at every Chinese restaurant. The next week, Sollie came by and offered my father a job as an assistant bookkeeper. “You be my eyes and ears,” Sollie said to him, “but let me be the mouth.”
Whether through a stroke of luck or cunning on Sollie’s part, it turned out to be the perfect job for my father. He was loyal, smart and hard-working, and over the years rooted out more than one employee skimming money from the company. I doubt my father ever knew that Aunt Ethel had had a hand in getting him the job; if he did, that knowledge never compromised his pure dislike of her. But he knew that Sollie had saved his life, and in his fashion, he was eternally grateful. He always kept a respectful distance from Sollie at the office and on the rare family occasions at which we’d see Sollie and his family. But Sollie was the only person my father ever genuinely loved—not counting my mother, whom I don’t know whether to count or not. The day Sollie died, my father retired from the company, with a pension that was more than enough for his modest needs.
At some point, I realized that Aunt Ethel wasn’t going to rescue me, and I was just going to have to rescue myself. I worked hard in high school, skipping two grades, and got accepted at the University of Chicago at sixteen with a full scholarship. Two days after I left for college, my mother packed up her clothes, loaded them into the back seat of Aunt Ethel’s car, and drove off without a word. Well, not quite. On a piece of paper propped against the salt shaker on the kitchen table, she wrote: “I’ve had enough.” She must have been counting down the days since I was in diapers.
My father called me a week later to tell me she’d left. As soon as I picked up the phone, I knew something was wrong. My father had a pretty limited vocal range: suspicious or in a full-blown rage pretty much covered the waterfront. But there was something different here, something closer to hysteria.
“What’s wrong, Dad?” I said.
“After twenty years, she says, ‘I’ve had enough.’ Nothing else. Just ‘I’ve had enough.’ Who would do a thing like that? No one, that’s who.”
“What are you talking about, Dad?”
“Your mother. I’m in the bathroom taking a piss, I hear the front door close, I come out. Your mother’s gone. Just like that. Twenty years, and she’s gone.”
“Mom left you?”
“What do you think she did? That’s what I’m telling you. Out the door. And all she says is, ‘I’ve had enough.’”
“She said that to you?”
“No, she didn’t say it to me. She wrote it on a napkin and left it on the kitchen table. ‘I’ve had enough.’”
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
“What are you sorry about? Did you have something to do with this?”
“No, I’m just sorry it happened. That’s all. When did she leave?”
“Last week,” he said. “I didn’t call you then because I thought it was some kind of joke, that she’d come back any minute. Some joke. Ha ha. You can probably hear me laughing all the way in Chicago. This afternoon, I finally called your Aunt Ethel. I could never stand that woman. She says to me, ‘You want to know where your wife is? She’s somewhere where she’ll never have to take your abuse again.’ What’s that supposed to mean?”
I thought it was pretty obvious what it was supposed to mean. Still, it was hard not to feel sorry for him. If someone has put up with you for twenty years without a word of complaint, you’re bound to feel sandbagged when she suddenly comes to her senses in year twenty-one.
“Well?” said my father, after a few seconds.
“I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, Dad.”
“Oh, so you’re on her side.”
“No, I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant that it seems pretty clear what Ethel meant by that.”
“OK, Mr. Smarty-Pants. So if you know everything, tell me where your mother is.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know she’d left until you told me just now.”
For a few seconds there was silence, and then muffled sounds that might have been crying. Finally he said, “When you talk to your mother, you can tell her that if she wants to come back, no one’s standing in her way.”
“I might put it a little differently, Dad.”
“You put it any way you want. She doesn’t want to come back, that’s her business.”
“You know, Dad,” I said, as gently as I could, “sometimes you’re not the easiest person in the world to live with.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Is that what your mother says? Is that what she meant by ‘I’ve had enough?’”
“I would guess she meant something like that.”
“So you are on her side.”
“No, Dad, I’m not on anyone’s side. I just want you both to be happy.” But I knew he had no chance at happiness, none whatsoever. I don’t why, he was just born with no chance.
He hung up on me.
My mother called me a few days later from Aunt Ethel’s house in New Jersey. She had just found an apartment about ten miles from Ethel, and was planning to move in the following week.
“It was too much for any person,” she said.
“I know,” I said.
“Please don’t tell your father where I am.”
“OK,” I said.
“There’s an extra bedroom in my apartment, you stay with me any time you want. But don’t cut your father off. He’s not a well man.”
“I know,” I said.
“He needs to talk to someone and there’s nobody but you now.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ll try.”
My father pretty much ruined my freshman year at college, which was an achievement at a thousand miles’ distance. He called me ten, twelve times a week, day and night, the local beat reporter hot on the trail of a breaking story.
“Hello, this is your father. I’ll tell you why she left. Because she’s a crazy woman. Everything’s fine, and then one day she walks out the door when I’m in the bathroom taking a piss, and never comes back. Who does that? Only a crazy woman.”
“Hello, this is your father. Next time you talk to your mother, you tell her that the cemetery bill just came. Her mother can rot in the ground with weeds so thick they could choke her, as far as I’m concerned.”
“If you send me the bill, Dad, I’ll make sure she gets it.”
“Some situation. I can’t mail a letter to my own wife. My son has to deliver it to her. What is she afraid of? You tell me that.”
“I don’t know, Dad, I think she just needs to be left alone for a while.”
“A Jewish Greta Garbo. What do you know. I married a Jewish Greta Garbo. Well, you tell Ms. Garbowsky that if she wants her clothes, she better come pick them up before Thursday, because that’s when Goodwill is coming to take them away.”
“Hello, this is your father. Twenty years and she doesn’t have the common decency to call me herself to tell me she wants a divorce. I have to hear it from her lawyer. What do you think of that? And you can tell her from me that her lawyer’s a goniff. An office like that, he’s robbing his clients blind.”
He was like the Energizer Bunny, running on pure bile. By spring, he finally showed signs of slowing down. The phone calls became less frequent, more subdued. Sometimes he’d call and then say nothing, waiting for me to fill the void with idle chatter. And then he stopped calling altogether. After a couple of weeks, filled with all the obvious fears, I called him.
“I was worried when I didn’t hear from you,” I said.
“Worried? What were you worried about?” he said.
“I don’t know, that something had happened to you.”
“What could happen to me? I get up, I read the paper, I eat, I take a piss, I go back to bed.”
“Dad, you sound kind of depressed.”
“Is there some reason I should be dancing a jig? You tell me.”
“Dad,” I said, “there’s a lot of daylight between dancing a jig and sitting around all day alone in your apartment moping. You could join the seniors’ group at the temple. They have card games, outings, maybe you’d meet some new people.”
"The old people were bad enough. I’m done with people.”
My mother remarried two years after she left my father—a nebbishy sort of guy, but sweet. I’d have gone for sweet too. After college, I got married myself and settled permanently in Chicago. My wife’s family lived outside of Chicago, in Skokie. When I first met them, I felt like I was on a field trip to Mars. It was my first genuine, up-close experience with a normal family. Every time we went to visit, my father-in-law would open the door, give me a bear hug and say, “How’s my favorite son-in-law?” We didn’t have much in common, beyond a taste for common courtesy and the simple niceties of life. But it turns out that’s enough—more than enough.
My father came to visit us once in Chicago, after much importuning from my wife and me, when our boys were still toddlers. He wouldn’t leave the house, and when my wife’s family finally gave up trying to get him over to their house and came over to ours instead, he said he felt sick and stayed in his room all night. I guess it felt like Mars to him too, only not in a good way.
I tried to get east at least a couple of times a year to see him. I’d bring dinner over to his apartment, and we’d struggle to make conversation for an hour or two. He never asked about my kids or my wife, and rarely more than a few perfunctory things about me. The only thing he wanted to talk about he wouldn’t bring up. Once he asked me if my mother ever asked about him. After a few seconds’ hesitation, I said no, which was the truth. Looking at his face, I wished I hadn’t. A couple of times, I had tried bringing him up with my mother. The first time she didn’t say anything. The second time, she said, “Seth, he’s your father. But I’m done with all that.”
Over the years, I had thought about bringing the whole family to New York to see him, but he so clearly didn’t want to be seen that I didn’t have the heart to do it to him or to them. But when my father turned eighty, I insisted over his protestations that we would all come east to celebrate his birthday. “The boys want to get to know you,” I said, not foolish enough to suggest that he might want to get to know them too.
I made reservations for all of us at a restaurant near his apartment—a quiet place, not too fancy, so he wouldn’t feel too much out of his element. But by then, his element was reduced to the four walls of his apartment, plus the half-block walk to the bodega that had replaced the old Jewish butcher shop as the neighborhood slowly changed out from under him. It was all too much. He sat in the corner, looking like a trapped animal, while my sons futilely tried to engage him in conversation. When the waiter brought out the cake I had ordered and we all sang “Happy Birthday,” he seemed utterly lost—another outing to Mars.
As I helped him on with his coat, my father said to me, “They’re good boys.” I looked at him, stunned. “Thanks, Dad,” I said, trying to keep my voice casual, trying not to scare him off. But that was all there was. He turned and walked outside, a shadow swallowed in the shadows of a late November night.
My father died last year, at 91. My wife and I had a small ceremony at the Jewish funeral home near his apartment—just the two of us, plus the rabbi the funeral home keeps on retainer for lapsed Jews like us who feel compelled at such moments to pay homage to history. I invited my mother to join us. I’m not exactly sure why—maybe misplaced sentimentality on my part, maybe a thought that she would welcome closure. She said no. “I don’t belong there, Seth. Even your father has a right to be mourned.”
My wife offered to stay on to help me close up my father’s apartment, but I said no, I wanted to do it alone. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe to force myself to face the past before the last visible traces of it vanished. The apartment looked pretty much unchanged from the day my mother left—a time capsule no one would want to open. One quick trip through was enough to confirm there was nothing here worth saving. I started in the kitchen and, over the next two days, methodically worked my way through the apartment, boxing and bagging everything to haul out to the trash. I left the bedroom for last. When I opened the door to what used to be my mother’s closet, I was stunned to discover her clothes still hanging there. My mother had left half a century ago. Was my father hoping all this time? Or was there just never a day when he could face throwing them out?
I cleaned out the closets and dresser drawers, and then turned my attention to the night table by his bed. In the top drawer, there was a small pharmacy, a pair of reading glasses, and an ancient paperback copy of Harry Golden’s Only in America, price 25 cents. I set aside the book and threw out everything else.
In the bottom drawer I found my parents’ wedding photograph and a pad of lined yellow paper. On the top sheet was a handwritten note, dated about a month before my father died.
I’m an old man. I can’t walk more than a block. The doctors tell me my heart is no good. I don’t say this for your pity. I just want you to know, in case for some reason you want to see me again before I’m gone.
I didn’t go to Seth’s wedding because I couldn’t bear to see you. Or the bris. Or Seth’s boy’s graduation. But I’m over all of that. Seth tells me you had a good life. I’m happy for you.
If there’s anything in the apartment you want, Seth can save it for you. Your clothes are still in the closet, but I don’t suppose you’d want them anymore. Also the picture Sollie took of us on our wedding day.
The only other thing I wanted to say is I know why you left. I saw it happening, everything turning to shit, and I couldn’t stop myself. But Seth turned into a fine young man, so that’s one good thing at least.
I ripped the top sheet off the pad, folded it carefully in thirds, and tucked it into the pages of Only in America for safekeeping. I would keep the photograph, but the letter, I decided, should be delivered to its intended recipient. There is a statute of limitations on everything.