Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Old Men of Revere Beach

I was 28 years old and building a future for myself, when I stepped off the Blue Line subway north of Boston and into the past....

Journal excerpt, August 28, 1987

On the way to Revere Beach I had entered a crowded set of subway cars filled with men who wore plaid and seersucker suits and sported fedoras. Then I watched as the train literally emptied at Suffolk Downs: my first exposure to the "migration to the racetrack." Once at the shore I walked along the water's edge, picking through rocks and seashells, communing with the sea. I watched gulls, watched adults slather themselves with tanning oil while children built bucket-shaped sandcastles. After getting my quota of sun, I retreated to a cement-roofed shelter with benches and sat on a wall overlooking the sand, dangling my feet over a mound of rocks.

Someone played a trumpet.

I looked to my right, where a band began to rehearse in the gazebo. Swing tunes. Folding chairs were being set up around the bandstand, leaving ample room for dancing.

Some members of the younger set -- those pushing 65 or so -- began to take to the floor. I stashed my backpack by a chair and joined them.

A short, aged man stood off to the side and held his arms out to me. Dressed in a dark blue polyester suit long out of shape, over a white shirt with beige crosshatch patterns. And a wide blue tie with open white circles. Light blue cap, with a small visor in front and a stretch band in back. Glasses. An oval shaped face -- only, where most oval faces extend top to bottom, his did from side to side, tanned and wrinkled.

His name is Barney. He is in his 80s. We went tippy-tippy-toe as the band played.

"They should play Jewish music," he asserted. "They know Jewish music, they should play it." A tremulous Yiddish accent, thick as good schmaltz.

"Might be fun if we all made a hora circle," I mused.

Afterwards, he thanked me and I bowed graciously, then returned to my writing. A woman in a pink bikini let me know I'd inspired her and her friend to dance. A white-haired man, slim and ruddy, asked if I'd studied dancing.

"Taught myself in front of a mirror," I said.

"I liked your interpretation," he replied.

Soon I was face to face with Morris. One dance after another, he twirled me around, had me twirl him. We pressed close to each other for slow waltzes, becoming something of an "item" at the gazebo.

"You make me feel young again," Morris told me. "Of course, I've always been young."

"Then you are," I answered.

"You've made my day."

I told him the feeling was mutual.

"I'd take you out to dinner," he said. "But I'm going on vacation, and I have to go home and pack. I have a widow friend, we're going down to Florida." He smiled conspiratorially. "Would you like to come with me?"

I smiled a graceful decline. "No, thanks."

Morris knows Barney, and provided us a formal introduction. "I would have danced more," said Barney, tremulously, "but I am wearing my boots. I can't dance when I wear my boots." He slowly pulled up a blue polyester pants leg to reveal one of a pair of fancy brown leather boots, as incongruous as the rest of his outfit. "What is your name?"


"Henderson?" He mused, "Well, it could be Jewish...."

"Not Henderson," Morris corrected him. "Elissa. It's her first name."

The prevailing question I've been met with has been, "Are you Jewish?" For an afternoon, at least, Revere Beach seemed the North Shore's Borscht Belt.

"Do you know Yiddish?" Barney asked me.

"A bissel," I replied.

Barney let loose with a fast string of Yiddish.

"Not that much!" I laughed, holding up my hands.

"Vell, vhat do you want to learn? I'll teach you Yiddish. They should play Jewish songs; I don't know why they don't play any Jewish songs. They know them...."

I held my hand out to Barney while Morris took me on for yet another dance. For a moment it was the three of us in a circle. Then it was just Morris and me again. Afterwards I gave him a hug, in the center of the "dance floor."

"We'd better stop, they'll shine the searchlights on us. My widow friend says I'm the only man she sees. Sometimes it drives me crazy."

"Once upon a time, I knew someone who was very possessive."

Morris looked momentarily confused. Then he asked, "Is that good, or not good?"

"Not good."

"Yeah, I think so, too." He turned to Barney. "We should take her out to dinner. Do you have fifty dollars?"

"I only have forty-nine dollars," Barney answered pensively.

"This is much better, out here," I said. "And it's free." They agreed.

Another man approached, 70-ish. He said his name was Mensch. I took his word for it; I'd been dealing with Everyman all along. Mensch asked me, "Did I hear you say you were from Brooklyn?"


"I was in Brooklyn once," Mensch said thoughtfully. "I had a friend in Brooklyn. He lived on 86th Street. I visited him a few years ago. Then he got hit by a truck." In pensive deadpan. He continued, "Traffic moves fast down there."

I returned to where I'd kept my backpack, and a vacant-eyed young man offered to watch my belongings for me. A white-haired man who'd guarded them before shot me a look that said, Don't trust this one. I gave him a look back that said, I know.

The young man helped me on with my backpack and asked me for my number.

"Why do you want my number?" I asked.

"Want to take you out."

"Sorry." I smiled. "I already have someone who takes me out."


"Good luck, though."

He turned and walked away. I excused myself from Morris and Barney, saying I was going to walk along the beach. Mensch joined me. "I write poetry," he said. "In English and in Yiddish. Rhymed poetry, not free verse, you know what I'm talking about?"

I knew what he was talking about. We stood on the rocks.

"Have you ever been to Miami Beach?" he asked.


"Do you know where North Avenue is?"

"Off Collins Avenue?" Miami Beach's Main Street. If it's not off Collins Avenue, it's not worth mentioning.

"Yeah, yeah, that's the one," Mensch cried. "I go there and read poetry. About the old country, and the synagogues, and the lighting of the candles." Said one intense syllable at a time, with feeling. "And I get up there, and I read. And when I read everybody stops talking. And I read my poetry, and then I finish and they all clap."

"That's wonderful," I said.

"You go there, when you're in Miami Beach." He asked, "Do you know Yiddish?"

"Not really."

"You can't stop being Jewish," he said emphatically. "The world reminds you. The Holocaust. I have a son, he's a psychiatrist. He tries to forget he's Jewish, but every now and then a word slips out."

"An occasional schlep, you mean."

"Yes." Mensch continued, "He married a Norwegian girl. His nurse." Shaking his head. "But he can't forget that he's Jewish."

I thought, that poor shiksa.

I wished Mensch luck, and then it was just me and the ocean. The susurrus of waves, the gulls. I walked along the water's edge to the huge cement blocks and wooden planks, a construction project in mid-sentence. A counterpoint to gazebo and benches. There, Latinas bathed with young children, guiding them toward or away from the water. A few Hispanic men sat on the blocks, dangling their hands between their knees.

I climbed the cement blocks until I reached the sidewalk. I crossed the street, working my way to the T-stop, for the ride home.


Blogger twila said...

Lovely. I could have kept reading all day.

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Elissa, I checked out the link you left at my site. What a great tribute to Mary. I was very moved. Her orginal take on the prayers reminded me of this line, I read somewhere...a poem that started out "Hey, Goddess, can I call you God for short?"

10:23 AM  
Blogger Yankee, Transferred said...

this post makes me miss Boston

12:55 PM  
Blogger TC said...

I came via Shelby. She was right: this was a must-read post.

Some members of the younger set -- those pushing 65 or so --

I laughed at that. What a fabulous way to set the scene.

10:57 AM  

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