Authors: Emily Cheney Neville
We came back to the city Labor Day Monday – us and a couple million others – traffic crawling, a hot day, the windows practically closed up tight to keep Cat in. I sweated, and then cat hairs stuck to me and got up my nose. Considering everything, Pop acted quite mild.
I met a kid up at the lake in Connecticut who had skin-diving equipment. He let me use it one day when Mom and Pop were off sightseeing. Boy, this has fishing beat hollow! I found out there's a skin-diving course at the Y, and I'm going to begin saving up for the fins and mask and stuff. Pop won't mind forking out for the Y membership, because he'll figure it's character-building.
Meanwhile, I'm wondering if I can get back up to Connecticut again one weekend while the weather's still warm, and I see that Rosh Hashanah falls on a Monday and Tuesday this year, the week after school opens. Great. So I ask this kid – Kenny Wright – if I can maybe come visit him that weekend so I can do some more skin diving.
"Rosh Hashanah? What's that?" he says.
So I explain to him. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. About half the kids in my school are Jewish, so they all stay out for it, and I always do too. Last year the school board gave up and made it an official school holiday for everyone, Jewish or not. Same with Yom Kippur, the week after.
Kenny whistles. "You sure are lucky. I don't think we got any holidays coming till Thanksgiving."
I always thought the kids in the country were lucky having outdoor yards for sports and recess, but I guess we have it over them on holidays – 'specially in the fall: three Jewish holidays in September, Columbus Day in October, Election Day and Veterans' Day in November, and then Thanksgiving. It drives the mothers wild.
I don't figure it'd be worth train fare to Connecticut for just two days, so I say good-bye to Kenny and see you next year and stuff.
Back home I'm pretty busy right away, on account of starting in a new school, Charles Evans Hughes High. It's different from the junior high, where I knew half the kids, and also my whole homeroom there went from one classroom to another together. At Hughes everyone has to get his own schedule and find the right classroom in this immense building, which is about the size of Penn Station. There are about a million kids in it – actually about two thousand – most of whom I never saw before. Hardly any of the Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village kids come here because it isn't their district. However, walking back across Fifth Avenue one day, I see one kid I know from Peter Cooper. His name is Ben Alstein. I ask him how come he is at Hughes.
"My dad wanted me to get into Peter Stuyvesant High School – you know, the genius factory, city-wide competitive exam to get in. Of course I didn't make it. Biggest Failure of the Year, that's me."
"Heck, I never even tried for that. But how come you're here?"
"There's a special science course you can qualify for by taking a math test. Then you don't have to live in the district. My dad figures as long as I'm in something special, there's hope. I'm not really very interested in science, but that doesn't bother him."
So after that Ben and I walk back and forth to school together, and it turns out we have three classes together, too – biology and algebra and English. We're both relieved to have at least one familiar face to look for in the crowd. My old friend Nick, aside from not really being my best friend anymore, has gone to a Catholic high school somewhere uptown.
On the way home from school one Friday in September, I ask Ben what he's doing Monday and Tuesday, the Jewish holidays.
"Tuesday I got to get into my bar mitzvah suit and go to synagogue and over to Brooklyn to my grandmother's. Monday I don't have to do anything special. Come on over with your roller skates and we'll get in the hockey game."
"I skate on my tail," I say, because it's true, and it would be doubly true in a hockey game. I try quick to think up something else. We're walking down the block to my house, and there's Cat sitting out front, so I say, "Let's cruise around and get down to Fulton Fish Market and pick up some fish heads for my cat."
"You're a real nut, aren't you?" Ben says. He doesn't say it as if he minds – just mentioning the fact. He's an easygoing kind of guy, and I think most of the time he likes to let someone else make the plans. So he shrugs and says, "O.K."
I introduce him to Cat. Ben looks him in the eye, and Cat looks away and licks his back. Ben says, "So I got to get you fresh fish for Rosh Hashanah, huh?"
Cat jumps down and rubs from back to front against Ben's right leg and from front to back against his left leg and goes to lie down in the middle of the sidewalk.
"See? He likes you," I say. "He won't have anything to do with most guys, except Tom."
So I tell Ben all about Tom and the cellar and his father disappearing on him.
"Gee," says Ben, "I thought I had trouble, with my father practically telling me how to breathe better every minute, but at least he doesn't disappear. What does Tom do now?"
"Works at the flower shop, right down there at the corner."
Ben feels around in his pockets a minute. "Hey, I got two bucks I was supposed to spend on a textbook. Come on and I'll buy Mom a plant for the holidays, and you can introduce me to Tom."
We go down to the flower shop, and at first Tom frowns because he thinks we've just come to kid around. Ben tells him he wants a plant, so then he makes a big thing out of showing him all the plants, from the ten-dollar ones on down, so Mr. Palumbo will see he's doing a good job. Ben finally settles on a funny-looking cactus that Tom says is going to bloom pretty soon.
Ben goes along home and I arrange to pick him up on Monday. I wait around outside until I see Tom go out on a delivery and ask him how he likes the job. He says he doesn't really know yet, but at least the guy is decent to work for, not like the filling-station man.
I sleep late Monday and go over to Peter Cooper about eleven. A lot of kids are out in the playgrounds, and some fathers are there tossing footballs with them and shouting "Happy New Year" to each other. It sounds odd to hear people saying that on a warm day in September.
Ben and I wander out of the project and he says, "How do we get to this Fulton Street?"
I see a bus that says "Avenue C" on it stopping on Twenty-third Street. Avenue C is way east, and so is Fulton Street, so I figure it'll probably work out. We get on. The bus rockets along under the East Side Drive for a few blocks and then heads down Avenue C, which is narrow and crowded. It's a Spanish and Puerto Rican neighborhood to begin with, then farther downtown it's mostly Jewish. Lots of people are out on the street shaking hands and clapping each other on the back, and the stores are all closed.
Every time the bus stops, the driver shouts to some of the people on the sidewalk, and he seems to know a good many of the passengers who get on. He asks them about their jobs, or their babies, or their aunt who's sick in Bellevue. This is pretty unusual in New York, where bus drivers usually act like they hate people in general and their passengers in particular. Suddenly the bus turns off Avenue C and heads west.
Ben looks out the window and says, "Hey, this is Houston Street. I been down here to a big delicatessen. But we're not heading downtown anymore."
"Probably it'll turn again," I say.
It doesn't, though, not till clear over at Sixth Avenue. By then everyone else has got off and the bus driver turns around and says, "Where you two headed for?"
It's funny, a bus driver asking you that, so I ask him, "Where does this bus go?"
"It goes from Bellevue Hospital down to Hudson Street, down by the Holland Tunnel."
"Holy crow!" says Ben. "We're liable to wind up in New Jersey."
"Relax. I don't go that far. I just go back up to Bellevue," says the driver.
"You think we'd be far from Fulton Fish Market?" I say.
The driver gestures vaguely. "Just across the island."
So Ben and I decide we'll get off at the end of the line and walk from there. The bus driver says, "Have a nice hike."
"I think there's something fishy about this," says Ben.
"That's what we're going to get, fish," I say, and we walk. We walk quite a ways.
Ben sees a little Italian restaurant down a couple of steps, and we stop to look at the menu in the window. The special for the day is lasagna, and Ben says, "Boy, that's for me!"
We go inside, while I finger the dollar in my pocket and do some fast mental arithmetic. Lasagna is a dollar, so that's out, but I see spaghetti and meat balls is seventy-five cents, so that will still leave me bus fare home.
A waiter rushes up, wearing a white napkin over his arm like a banner, and takes our order. He returns in a moment with a shiny clean white linen tablecloth and a basket of fresh Italian bread and rolls. On a third trip he brings enough chilled butter for a family and asks if we want coffee with lunch or later. Later, we say.
"Man, this is living!" says Ben as he moves in on the bread.
"He treats us just like people."
Pretty soon the waiter is back with our lasagna and spaghetti, and he swirls around the table as if he were dancing. "Anything else now? Mind the hot plates, very hot! Have a good lunch now. I bring the coffee later."
He swirls away, the napkin over his arm making a little breeze, and circles another table. It's a small room, and there are only four tables eating, but he seems to enjoy acting like he was serving royalty at the Waldorf. When we're just finished eating, he comes back with a pot of steaming coffee and a pitcher of real cream.
I'm dolloping the cream in, and it floats, when a thought hits me: We got to leave a tip for this waiter.
I whisper to Ben, "Hey, how much money you got?"
He reaches in his pocket and fishes out a buck, a dime, and a quarter. We study them. Figure coffees for a dime each, and the total check ought to be $1.95. We've got $2.35 between us. We can still squeak through with bus fare if we only leave the waiter a dime, which is pretty cheap.
At that moment he comes back and refills our coffee cups and asks what we will have for dessert.
"Uh, nothing, nothing at all," I say.
"Couldn't eat another thing," says Ben.
So the waiter brings the check and along with it a plate of homemade cookies. He says, "My wife make. On the house."
We both thank him, and I look at Ben and he looks at me. I put down my dollar and he puts down a dollar and a quarter.
"Thank you, gentlemen, thank you. Come again," says the waiter.
We walk into the street, and Ben spins the lone remaining dime in the sun. I say, "Heads or tails?"
It comes up heads, so Ben keeps his own dime. He says, "We could have hung onto enough for
bus fare, but that's no use."
"No use at all. 'Specially if it was yours."
"Are we still heading for Fulton Street?"
"Sure. We got to get fish for Cat."
"It better be for free."
We walk, threading across Manhattan and downtown. I guess it's thirty or forty blocks, but after a good lunch it doesn't seem too far.
You can smell the fish market when you're still quite a ways off. It runs for a half a dozen blocks alongside the East River, with long rows of sheds divided into stores for the different wholesalers. Around on the side streets there are bars and fish restaurants. It's too bad we don't have Cat with us because he'd love sniffing at all the fish heads and guts and stuff on the street. Fish market business is done mostly in the morning, I guess, and now men are hosing down the streets and sweeping fish garbage up into piles. I get a guy to give me a bag and select a couple of the choicer – and cleaner – looking bits. I get a nice red snapper head and a small whole fish, looks like a mackerel. Ben acts as if fish guts make him sick, and as soon as I've got a couple he starts saying "Come on, come on, let's go."
I realize when we're leaving that I don't even notice the fish smell anymore. You just get used to it. We walk uptown, quite a hike, along East Broadway and across Grand and Delancey. There's all kinds of intriguing smells wafting around here: hot breads and pickles and fish cooking. This is a real Jewish neighborhood, and you can sure tell it's a holiday from the smell of all the dinners cooking. And lots of people are out in their best clothes gabbing together. Some of the men wear black skullcaps, and some of them have big black felt hats and long white beards. We go past a crowd gathering outside a movie house.
"They're not going to the movies," Ben says. "On holidays sometimes they rent a movie theater for services. It must be getting near time. Come on, I got to hurry."
We trot along the next twenty blocks or so, up First Avenue and to Peter Cooper.
"So long," Ben says. "I'll come by Wednesday on the way to school."
He goes off spinning his dime, and too late I think to myself that we could have had a candy bar.
Ben and I both take biology, and the first weekend assignment we get, right after Rosh Hashanah, is to find and identify an animal native to New York City and look up its family and species and life cycle.