In November a close friend who's a builder broke his neck working on a roof, and a couple weeks later a few friends of his went to finish the job for him. I worked with two other guys in the sun on a big house, an estate in a forested ravine. I know the homeowner too. He’s odd-- thin and crooked and goggly-eyed, always on the lookout. I walk a lot through the woods around here and I end up trespassing now and then. Once when I came down that ravine, he drove up to me when I was out on the road and sort of confronted me.
We were on the roof when one of the carpenters brought up the Palestinians. He knows about this website. He said, it’s wrong the way those people are treated. It’s disgraceful. Then he asked me to tell him about the occupation.
I told him about kids not getting out of Gaza to get their scholarships, and he said, And it’s all because of the United States.
The taller carpenter was further up the roof putting on sheathing and he objected. You can’t judge the Israelis. We’d do exactly the same if we had gone through what they went through. The smaller carpenter got into it with him. What would we do if someone came over here and took our land, he said. I was tucked under the eaves holding soffit strips for the taller guy to screw down, and grinning devilishly.
He said, You want to get rid of Israel? There’s a good reason it’s there, that would be like the Holocaust all over again. I’m not saying that, the smaller one said.
The smaller guy went off to get another sheet of plywood and I could see him talking with the homeowner. The homeowner had been raking the yard as we talked. The smaller carpenter came back and said something under his breath to the other carpenter. The taller one passed it on to me: He wants us to stop talking about Israel. It upsets him. He is Jewish.
The conversation shut down. Later I felt a wave of sympathy for the homeowner. He is strange, he has a European name. I think he must be the child of Holocaust survivors. It is not hard to assign him a tortuous back story, barely escaping Poland via North Africa, wealth from German reparations. I can’t help identify with his helpless, rootless feeling. Still it didn’t excuse him shutting down the conversation.
A friend of my wife came to visit around the holiday and on a whim he decided to drop in on a finance mogul who lives near us and had been sending him emails to try and get him to consult on a job. We drove up to the man’s town in my wife’s friend’s car and took a while to find the address.
It was a forbidding estate. Towering stone pillars and a steel gate. But by chance as we stopped outside the gate, it slid open. Shazaam. We passed huge sculptures on the driveway going down to a lake.
Of course, we weren’t expected. But my wife and her friend are both streetsmart drop-in artists. I find it excruciating. I hunched in the back of the car as they sauntered brashly up to the huge oaken front door. I could hear them jabbering with the man and his wife over the intercom.
How did you get in? How did you get through the gate? Who did you say you are? Translation: you have some nerve.
But my wife and her friend are charming, and soon she came back out and summoned me to come in too. Everyone had a drink. The man showed us around the vast house…. pornographic art and polished stone shower slabs from Uzbekistan and Timbuktu, walls that move on electric hidden cables, televisions that glide out of walls, an amphiteater above the water seating hundreds of close friends, a theater with gas fires along the wall. We were lucky to catch him home, in one of his four houses. You get the picture.
My wife and her friend were marveling, but I was embarrassed, because I'm Jewish and so was the mogul. This was shameless. And I saw it all coming when we drove down past the hulking sculptures. Is this what my great people have come to? It was like Gatsby throwing down shirts on the bed to impress Nick Carraway, but in this case it was exotic building materials, and none of the wit. But I guess WASPs lived like this once, when they were driving the economy.
My wife and her friend wore delighted smiles but I felt a need to excuse him inwardly. I said to him, You must have grown up poor. “My father was an immigrant laborer in South Africa,” he said with bite, as though he had said it many times before. “I grew up in [an American city] with bare plywood floors. I decided I was never going to live that way again.”
An American story. Though I wish it weren’t my people.
My property touches another guy’s land at the back, a businessman and devout Christian. His wife sends out cards that warn people against being B.U.S.Y. Bustling under Satan’s Yoke.
He's a big hunter, and the only times I’ve seen him were in the woods. Twice I’ve disturbed his hunt, trespassing on his land to walk to a friend’s house over the ridge. One year I passed his camouflaged treestand with my dog and looked up and there he stood twenty feet above me with a black mask on. He nodded once like a fell superhero, gazing angrily. It froze my blood.
A year later I came over the rise with the dog and he was walking the ridge with a gun. This time he yelled at me for scaring off the deer he had been tracking for the last two hours. My dog had ruined the hunt. He said he had excused me the year before because he understood people trespassed. Still. I was silent, nodding shamefully.
I sent him a note later apologizing, and promised not to do it again.
But I did it again. Last month. I didn’t realize it was still bow season. There was a camouflage box tent on the ridge, and he must have been inside it. He called my neighbor to chew her out. What did he say to you? I asked her. She said, he’s waiting for Jew season to open. We laughed. It was her joke, not the hunter’s. She is married to a Jew, a mixed couple, like me.
Though later I reflected, I never felt scared of him, never, not even when he was stalking the ridge with his gun. Don’t go old-school on me now. No one is thinking that way.
My neighbor Terry called me because he was going to cut down some telephone poles in the state park. I rushed off to help him. Terry is an official trail maintainer for New York-New Jersey trail conference and he keeps up a loop through a state park not far from my house. Sometimes I help him when he’s out there with his chain saw.
I was wild to do the telephone poles because, come on, who wouldn't want to chop down telephone poles? Also, they clutter this trail, and I like the woods. But the other reason is because Terry is Jewish. Not Jewish in any of the conventional ways. He is a teacher, he’s outdoorsy as hell, he’s built like a brick shithouse, he worked for 25 years as a telephone lineman. He is Hannah Arendt’s kind of Jew—Hannah Arendt who said that the kibbutz was the greatest Jewish achievement of the 20th century and who disdained wealth and “moneygrubbing.”
I like being with another Jew who understands my love of physical labor. As Terry cut the poles, I pulled on the wires to make them come down the right way. It was cold, and I came up with a joke. Terry used to work at Goldman, Sachs, and that’s how he learned to use a chain saw. "They taught you that on the trading floor at Goldman, Sachs, you don’t fool me," I said. Terry grinned and felled another telephone pole.
We carried four and five foot lengths of pole to fill a culvert on a creek that was washed out by Irene.
The next day Terry emailed me to say the Parks people have been all over him. We were out of line. There’s creosote in the poles. He’s got to move them all out.
I wrote back, No good deed goes unpunished, didn’t they teach you that lesson at Goldman?
Terry wrote back to say, he's named after his grandfather, Edwin Posner, who was Chairman of the American Stock Exchange twice, because the government asked him the second time to clean up corruption.
Well Terry, you've moved up in my book.
I needed to borrow my friend’s hammer drill, the guy who broke his neck. He lives two-and-a-half miles from me, and I’ve tried to look in on him every day or so. For a while my wife arranged a schedule for friends to bring him meals. But he's healed well, and now he’s able enough not to need anyone to cook for him.
I called him on new year's day and said, I’ll take away your garbage if I can borrow that hammer drill. Sure, he said.
I stayed to watch some of the football game then went in the back for two big bags of garbage. Can I take them through the house? I asked. Sure, he said.
I hit the Christmas tree going past it and an ornament shattered. A big one.
He said, Oh hell, my favorite, my great-grandmother gave it to us.
I got on my knees to clean it up and my fingers trembled as I tore open the garbage bag to stick the shards in. I felt like hell. I felt so bad I didn’t ask for the hammer drill after all. When I got home I told my wife and she consoled me. It was the first day of the new year and I’d already crapped it up. I’d resolved to be orderly, I'd crapped it up. She said, You’ve been a good friend to him, don’t worry.
In the morning she was on-line looking for antique Christmas ornaments. I went to my desk and set up the paypal to buy one from Estonia for $40. Me, buying Christmas ornaments on January 2.
Then my wife called out to me in a sharp voice. A something-wrong voice. I went into her office. She had called my friend to tell him how shitty I felt, and he told her, Didn’t he get that I was joking? That was a nothing ornament.
Later I heard my wife telling the story on me. This is how dramatic Phil is, she said. Or, this is how gullible. I’ve never been streetsmart either-- another of my resolutions.
I still needed that hammer drill. I called my friend and offered to move his logpile into the house for him. I drove down. I was going to grab that drill.