It had never been so full, at least in her memory. Even though it was mid-morning – past the early bird and before the lunch hour rush – she had to circle the lot twice before wedging the Citroen into a short-term space. At least it was close to the APO. She looked through the windshield to see a steady stream of men carrying large cartons into the military post office. They looked like the stream of ants she had once seen in Brazil, carrying whole leaves in their mouths, streaming across her path to their native anthill. Now in 1994 these men were sending their boxes of stuff back to their own anthill in the United States. Twenty-eight years. She was struck with the contrast.
In 1966 it had been the reverse – ants streaming out to a foreign anthill to make it safe for democracy – and she had been part of it, coming in to pick up parcels from home. In her own way, thanks to Mr. Fulbright, she had been part of it all, teaching at Berlin’s Kennedy School, spreading democratic ideals to the German teachers and students. During those years she’d used the military support system as much as she could to counter her homesickness, to feel just for a bit that she was back home, that she could understand the language around her without trying. At the bi-cultural Kennedy School there was that bit of foreign-ness in the air. Germans – teachers and students – would revert to their mother tongue in difficult situations. The shopping center on Clayallee, deep in the American Sektor of the divided city had been an island on an island –and she had been glad then to be on that small island.
It took a long time for her to realize what else there was in the city beyond the false calm of the American Sektor. She knew so little of Berlin, the real Berlin, that she had extended her contract. And, to be honest, because of Jon, a man she had met in 1966 at a reception for all allied personnel. He was much older, but he knew so much – about Berlin, German history, everything that was new and strange to her then. He was an American but not a teacher, not an officer either, but somehow involved with something called the Liaison Mission, somehow military but not really, based in Potsdam, but also in Berlin. Like so much in those years its purpose was murky. She never knew what exactly Jon did for a living, or, for that matter, where he was doing it. He took a lot of business trips, like the one he was starting today. She welcomed the time alone. Over the years she’d realized how important this was for her.
It took longer than she’d thought to drive over to the PX in Dahlem and back. She was glad to get home to Kreuzberg. As always when she unlocked the door and walked into the wide hall she relaxed. There were four large boxes in the hall, a note attached to one.
‘Lynda, just some stuff. UPS will pick these up tomorrow. Sorry. J.’
She went into the living room and opened the balcony doors. She needed a breath of fresh air. Inside the bedroom door was another box on the floor with Jon’s scrawl across the top ‘Not Needed.’ For goodness sake, was she supposed to clean up whenever he left on a trip?’ This was a new development.
That night as she turned down the covers, she found another note, this one in an envelope addressed to Lynda with a Y.
What was going on? She opened it.
I’m sorry I cut you off last night. Packing made me tired. Maybe this will help answer some of your questions.
Berlin, when I arrived in ’66, was perfect for me – a crazy quilt full of spies, draft-dodgers, drug and information peddlers, starving artists, left-over Nazis, diplomats, Brits, French, Amis, Russians. It was an occupied space where no single element dominated. I just needed to find a way in.
And you, with your mid-western openness, were just what I needed. Your jobs, your friends were the perfect camouflage. Over the years you became much more, my bit of stability in a very shifting reality. I’ve said this often. You mean a lot to me. I hope you know it’s true.
It all started to change when the Wall fell. With reunification, the empty space that had been Berlin until then was full of self-confident Germans, asserting their rights. My contacts started to dry up and after so many years I found myself displaced. Everything was strange. You were absorbed in your job. I never felt as at home in the new place on Tempelherrenstrasse as I did in the attic apartment on Hüttenweg.
I’m not sure what’s ahead for me. I’m not so curious now. At sixty-seven there doesn’t seem much point. I may try to live in New York. It’s a strange city for me now. If that doesn’t work out I’ll try some other city, maybe on the West Coast.
So, you see, Lynda with a Y, you were my savior. True, for other people, you seemed only a sometime girlfriend in a sometime home, but still, the only home and the only girlfriend I had for twenty-eight years.
The letter fluttered to the floor unnoticed. She sat absolutely still. Suddenly she stood up and marched through the apartment turning on every available light. When all the lights were on, she went to the living room and poured herself a large whisky. Glass in hand, she walked slowly through all the rooms again, taking stock, sipping her drink. When the whiskey was gone she sat down on the sofa.
So now she knew all about Jon – no great mystery. At least she knew about his past and his feelings for her. Twenty-eight years! It made her angry that he’d always been so sure about his feelings for her while she had been so confused. Her feelings for him? She’d never been sure before, never admitted it. Now she was. It was never a love story. She’d made her own life and he had joined it now and then. As for not seeing him again, she had plenty of practice.
The next morning, waking up still angry, she checked his closet and drawers –single socks, a couple of very ugly ties hanging askew in the closet, empty hangers. It was true. He was gone and had taken all his stuff, except – way back on the top shelf – a box, like the ones for Xerox paper. She pulled it down: “Jonathan Bleeman: A Life” written in sharpie on the cover, inside many typewritten pages. She read the first sentences,
Somewhere over the north Atlantic I closed my eyes. Regretted the whole thing. What was I thinking? Half-asleep, the plane’s descent felt like a fall. The airport shiny and new, easy to find my connection, slept through the flight from Frankfurt. Then the landing announcement, an echo of wartime news, “Berlin”, loud and clear. I was here.
Lynda frowned, thinking. This was when he came to Berlin in 1966. Is this his life in Berlin or part of a diary or letter for someone, for me? Do I want to know any more about him? Angry and hurt all over again, she pushed it back in the corner of the closet. It took a week for her anger to abate, for curiosity to take over. She pulled down the box and reached for the top page. It was typewritten.
Somewhere over the north Atlantic I closed my eyes. Regretted the whole thing. What was I thinking? Half-asleep, the plane’s descent felt like a fall. The airport shiny and new, easy to find my connection, slept through the flight from Frankfurt. Then the landing announcement, an echo of wartime news, “Berlin”, loud and clear. I was here. Peering down through clouds, glimpses of the Wall like a dotted line drawn randomly through the city. Not so dotted. Not my business though.
Then the taxi – a Mercedes, so strange. I leaned forward, cleared my throat.
My first attempt: “Bitte, zum Harnack House.” Or was it ‘nach’? I couldn’t
remember. The language course had been too short, too fast, the flight too long.
The driver turned to look at me, frowned
“In Dahlem” I added.
“Right, S’okay. I know.” The driver looked foreign, threatening, dark skin, lots of facial hair. The license hanging on the driver’s headrest said Mustafa Aksoy. Definitely not German. Just like home, foreigners driving cabs. I leaned back and watched the traffic, felt my eyes closing, then I heard it – dee da dee da – a war movie. They’re coming to get Anne Frank. I knew it.
Lynda fished the next typewritten pages out of the carton.
“Bullen” mumbled the driver.
“Cops” The police car raced by the cab, going in the same direction.
“Maybe there’s an accident?”
“Nah. A pro – test” (accent somehow wrong).
“Ah” wondering if that made it better. The driver took a sudden left. A detour? Good. Arrested on arrival was not the way to start this job. My eyes closed, thought about the interview. Observe, they’d said, tried to stay awake. Long day ahead. The city rolled by – old buildings, a park with a waterfall, yellow double decker buses, empty spaces between buildings. Friseur must be barbershop. Bank, easy. Schmuck, the old joke, Yiddish, German the languages all mixed up like the people, Jews and Goyim – before the war.
The scenery changed, more trees, more private houses. I kept drifting off. The cab stopped. “Harnack House?” “Ja.” Big, brown stucco, big windows, somehow too institutional for a hotel.
I fished the envelope with Deutschmarks out of my briefcase, looked at the meter, gave the driver a fifty-mark bill. Small bills, different colors, coins as change. Tip? no tip? how much? Danke, change to the driver, danke from the driver. Many dankes, they’d warned me. The suitcase on to the sidewalk. Auf wiedersehen. The end of the trip, the beginning of my stay in Germany.
Lynda dropped the pages onto her lap. Jonathan nervous, apprehensive. She
never knew him that way.
Later, sitting on the bed, exhausted. So far, so good. Soon an apartment in military housing, the ID in my pocket next to my passport, city maps, phone code for calls to the States. The Liaison guy had been good. Tomorrow morning – scout the territory, walk the neighborhood, get my Berlin legs (hah!), maybe even try out my German. In the afternoon a tour of the city with somebody, forgot the name. Pulled the chain, turn off the light, rolled over, pulled the blankets up.
The telephone rang. A Lieutenant Feldman from Liaison wanted to meet me downstairs as soon as possible. I couldn’t remember a Lieutenant Feldman from yesterday. It had been a sergeant something who’d shepherded me through the formalities. Had something gone wrong? I could feel the paranoia creeping up – jack boots, leather coats, knocks on the door in the dead of night. ‘Get a grip’ I told myself. I’d find out soon enough.
Lieutenant Feldman was waiting in the lobby. “Mr. Bleeman?” smiling, friendly. “Have you had breakfast? Let’s go into the Dining Room. I’m sure you can still get something.” Lieutenant Feldman was short, looked to be in his mid-thirties, trim in his uniform, his cap under his arm, horn-rimmed glasses. As we sat at a table, I wondered how I must look to this military man – a jet-lagged, badly shaven middle-aged civilian, wearing yesterday’s wrinkled suit.
The captain cleared his throat, obviously ill at ease.
“You got in alright? At Berlin Brigade, I mean. Met everyone, Sergeant Miller? the liaison officer, got everything you need?”
“Yes, I think so. Everyone was very helpful.”
“It’s just that we get very few civilians and um…it’s very unusual for you to be attached to Liaison, as a civilian I mean.”
“Well, it’s very unusual for me to be attached to the military too. First time for me.”
“Yes, well. Berlin is a very special place as I’m sure you know.”
A silence. I drank my coffee.
“What do you think of Berlin?”
“I haven’t seen much of it. I was planning to walk around a little, get the feel of the city.”
“Oh. I’m Marv, Marvin Feldman”. We shook hands. “That’s why I came by, Jon, to meet you and to give you a sort of personal welcome. And to warn you that, because of your special status, the military would not be able to help you if circumstances should put you in a dangerous situation.”
“But surely the Consulate would help any American citizen.”
“Ordinarily yes, but the State Department is wary of any interaction with the East German government that might be misinterpreted. That’s why we have to suggest…” another throat clearing, correcting himself, “to tell you that, should you enter East Berlin, you leave any documentation of your attachment to the military at home.” Marvin, Marv, heaved a small sigh of relief. Message delivered.
Thinking about it later, I found the whole warning a bit extreme. They- the East Germans – probably already knew who and where I was.
I was out for a stroll looking for something to eat, the army coffee churning in my empty stomach. No cafes here, nothing but more trees, more houses. I turned toward Clayallee. Across the street on the corner, I spotted what looked like a hot dog stand next to an U-bahn station. (U for Untergrundbahn I remembered, subway.)
“Schnell Imbiss” the sign said. Fast something. Grandma’s Yiddish, handy again. Fine, fast would be good, whatever Imbiss meant. I pointed, surprised when I got what I hoped were hot dogs. Certainly not kosher, but neither was I, not observant at all actually. I was surprised. The hot dogs tasted really good.
I was waiting outside Harnack House at 2 pm when the Oldsmobile with Marv at the wheel pulled up.
“Welcome to your unofficial tour of Berlin.”
Later I remembered little of the tour – the lake, the patrol boats and the bridge where Powers had been exchanged.
Marv’s German sounded good. “Did you learn German in school?”
“No, actually my parents spoke Yiddish as a secret language. It’s close. I can get along, nothing complicated.”
“Yeah. I can understand a little from my grandmother.” There was a pause as we realized we were both Jewish.
Sometime after the Olympic Stadium – I kept nodding off, jet lag – Plötzensee. Later, whenever someone said Hitler wasn’t all bad, I would see Plötzensee as if I were still there – the white-washed walls, the iron beam with butcher hooks, the old movie camera on a tripod, ready to record the murder of his enemies for Hitler’s later enjoyment. They had mentioned this in Washington, but seeing it in person was different.
“Last stop” Marv announced as he parked the car. ‘Thank god’ I thought. We mounted the stairs to a viewing platform a good distance from the Wall closing off access to the Brandenburg Gate. “To the left you can see the ruins of the Reichstag, that’s on our side, and over there to the right in that empty space, see the mound? That was Hitler’s Bunker. It’s on their side. It’s all mined over there. ”
I looked at the ruins, at the mound that was Hitler’s Bunker. I shook my head. “Let’s go. I’ve seen enough. Thanks.”
Marv nodded. “I understand.”
We drove straight up a broad street. “And that’s the French Officers’ Club, Maison de France”.
“Can I get in there too?”
“With your ID card, sure. You can even take a guest. Speaking of which, there’s a reception for Americans, military and others, at Amerika Haus in a couple of weeks.”
Might be interesting, I thought.
When we finally arrived at Harnack House, I thanked Marv. “I learned lot today. Thanks for all the driving and especially for the history lessons.”
After a week in depressing Harnack House I was glad to get the key to an apartment on Argentinische Allee, behind the PX. But my neighbors, military and their dependents, were nosey, intrusive and loud and lived completely on this American island. This was no way for me to ‘melt in’.
She dropped the pages, thought how easy he’d had it – an ID card, like gold in those years, and an apartment just like that. We had to look for such a long time. The Fulbright came with an ID card but not an apartment.
I had to bargain, first with the Marv, then on the phone with Washington, to get a housing allowance plus PX privileges, but without the Commissary. Marv, the liaison guy, said if I had no US kitchen, I would not need US groceries. I had to admit it might be more productive to shop ‘German’.
So I walked around the city looking for a place to live and incidentally trying to find Amerika Haus where the reception was going to be. By complete accident I found the perfect place in Charlottenburg – Bleibtreustrasse 46, an old house with a fancy entrance, marble foyer, curving staircase – classy. In spite of the holes where bombs had fallen it was a city neighborhood, like New York. It was a big furnished room with limited kitchen privileges available in January. I rented it on the spot. To bridge the three months, I went for a little luxury and booked a double room at fancy Hotel Kempinski. After all, the exchange rate was four Deutschmarks to the dollar – why not? It was the kind of place a successful businessman might use. In the Kempinski Bar I met German businessmen who all insisted on speaking English. When they asked, I just said I was investigating war claims – a stretch but vague enough to avoid further questions.
Funny, she thought, I never heard about a room. I remember him saying he was staying in a hotel at the beginning.
She lifted another page from the pile.
At the Amerika Haus reception a woman and a soldier were checking off names as people entered. I scanned the crowded room – many uniforms – Army khaki, Air Force blue – and dark suits, some women in conservative cocktail dresses. Close to the center of the crowd four women, apparently single, at least they seemed to wander freely, not anchored to a suit or uniform.
I was heading in their direction when I felt a hand on my sleeve. Marv Feldman smiled. “Jonathan, I’d like you to meet Mr. and Mrs. Matschke. Herr Matschke is head of the German-American Chamber of Commerce. This is Mr. Bleeman.”
Mr. Matschke smiled, extended his hand. “Call me Georg,” (a hard G, each letter sounded) “Jonathan” I replied. Georg gestured to the tall elegant woman at his side. “This is my wife, Veronika.” She smiled, shook my hand. “How do you do, Yonatan” Wow, would I be Yonatan for a year? Why not? It had a nice ring.
I answered the usual questions, (their response “just this month –imagine”, “ah, the Kempinski, very nice,”) and said dinner sometime would be nice and slipped Georg’s business card into my pocket as the couple nodded their heads and smilingly moved on. Hadn’t thought of business cards, have to ask Marv about that.
I made my way toward the group of women. They introduced themselves, smiled when I said “Yonatan here, but Jonathan in the States.” I just couldn’t remember who was who. One of them said she was ‘Lynda with a Y’, but which one? It made chatting difficult. They were definitely American, here for a year as teachers at the Kennedy School. “For Germans and Americans.” One of them added. Was it Maggie who was so friendly? Or Christine? Lynda with a Y seemed a little reserved. They left soon, a dinner appointment they said. They must travel in groups, I thought, and turned to the next stranger – “Hi” – the universal opening.
‘Not romantic’ Lynda thought, but we were interested in other things. We were thinking about getting the apartment together. But thinking back, the apartment, when they found it, hadn’t turned out to be the panacea she’d hoped for.
After the reception, I was somewhat at a loss, no office hours, no place of business, no concrete goals or specific timeline. If I was supposed to really talk to people, I’d have to speak better German.
Thinking I could manage public transportation with my experience as a New Yorker I was shocked one day on the train to hear the announcement “Sie verlassen jetzt West Berlin”. Did that mean what I thought? The other passengers were calm. I waited, spotted the guards as we passed the darkened stations, machine guns at the ready. Then a general sigh of relief ran through the car – West Berlin. So crazy.
By November the sky had turned grey, the wind whistled down from the steppe. I was beginning to feel more relaxed, thought I might even refresh the connection to the Germans I met at the reception.
Herr Matschke was very friendly on the phone and immediately invited me to come by the office or, even better, to come for dinner. He’d check with Veronika and get back with a date.
The dinner at the Matschkes was a new event for me – my first German dinner party. The other guests had spent time in the States, like the Matschkes, so the conversation was again in English. I helped Veronika carry dishes into the kitchen.
“Have you seen much of the nightlife here?” she asked as she loaded the dishes into the dishwasher.
“No, not much.”
“Ah. Of course, it’s not what it once was. But you should go to the Zigeuner Keller. I think you’d enjoy it. I’ll talk to Georg. Maybe he can arrange something.” She looked up at me, smiled, the gracious hostess.
Berlin ‘as it once was’, along with its nightlife, might have been anything but enjoyable, I thought but said nothing.
The Zigeuner Keller was in a basement off Ku’damm. I got there early. Dark, smokey, and filled with Germans enjoying themselves, or at least drinking. Veronika came alone.
Georg and her friend Ingeborg couldn’t make it, she said.
There was a lot of alcohol, but afterward, I was never quite sure if Veronika was really drunk. In spite of leaning on me whenever she could, she remained the ‘elegante Dame’, – until she said ‘Gute Nacht” with a long and inviting kiss. I found my way back to the Kempinski, a little drunk but even more confused. The strange kiss, the gypsy cellar. In 1940 sent to the gas chambers, in 1966 gypsies a symbol of romantic abandon – so weird.
I managed to avoid another meeting with the Matschkes for a month. Balancing the husband and the wife all at once would be – challenging, especially after the strange evening at the Zigeuner Keller. I was curious, I admitted. And Veronika was very good-looking, probably older than me. Well, it was up to her. I would wait and see.
Then came the invitation to the Matschkes’ party in early December. I wasn’t sure what a “Yule Umtrunk” was but thought flowers for the hostess would be safe. Veronika was surprised and pleased. They must have been okay.
By 9 pm it was obvious that the cocktail party had oozed into something else. By ten most of the guests had left. Carrying dirty glasses into the kitchen, I found myself alone with Veronika. She turned, came very close and whispered in my ear “The roses are beautiful, Yonatan. When can we see each other?”
Slightly embarrassed “Well, I thought red goes with the season,” I mumbled. She smiled. “I have a hair appointment downtown on Thursday. I’ll be having a coffee at 4 pm at the Kempinski. Perhaps I’ll see you.”
A married woman, I thought. A business contact. This is not a good idea. On the other hand…. I followed her into the living room, made my good-byes and left.
Over the next few days I weighed the situation: an elegant woman, probably older, but not by much, married, but maybe this was normal here, like in foreign movies. I was unattached, staying only for a short time, both of us were adults, Georg only a general business contact, not a friend. On the other hand, maybe I misunderstood the whole thing. Wait and see on Thursday
Turned out – I was the one who started it. She had simply replied to the red roses, “from the heart,” she said. We laughed a lot about this other language I would have to learn, easier than German maybe, but full of surprises. Relaxed, it was easier to talk, to get to know each other without any secret agenda or mistaken identity. She was curious about what brought me to Berlin. I admitted it was more by chance. She asked about my childhood, had I left a girlfriend, was it hard to be so far from home. I said no, no girlfriend and I did not miss home, was glad to be away. After an hour, Veronika said she had to go, she was so sorry, this was so interesting. I was the one who suggested meeting again after Christmas. “First Thursday in the new year? That would be lovely,” she said and offered her hand. German style, I thought, cool.
By this time Lynda was scowling. Who was this Veronika? She read on.
I moved to my room on Bleibtreustrasse in January, thinking my German would improve by chatting with the landlady, Frau Schmidt, “Ach Herr Bleeman! Do you want to get us all killed? You need to use the ‘Anzünder’ if you want a fire on the stove.” Frau Schmidt shook her head at me and muttered “kurze Haare, kurzer Sinn” This I understood – US soldiers, short hair and short on sense.
Gradually we got used to each other, the old lady and me, the ‘tall Ami’. “Only no lady visitors” she’d told me. “Natürlich nicht!” I’d answered, frowning as I peered down at her. No problem there, thinking of Veronika. Other than the business with the kitchen and lady visitors, I had no problems with Frau Schmidt.
By the end of the year, I’d been out to Siemensstadt, had some interviews, been to the restaurants and bars, the kneipen, where the workers met, listened hard, and improved my German. I was able to send a fairly positive report to MAPS (a visit to Schering was set for spring. Colgate Palmolive was evidently interested) and notes to Adam. Certainly, everyone I’d met was pro-American. They were mainly, like me, over forty. As far as the atmosphere in the streets went, the students were protesting against the government of old men, even former Nazis, who still had power. Vietnam played a role for the students in Germany, but less than it did in the States, as far as I could tell.
East Berlin when I ventured over, was definitely alien country. After West Berlin it was weird for me that the US was ‘the bad guy’, the villain. I included all this in the notes to Washington mainly to prove I was working the streets. They could draw their own conclusions.
Who was MAPS? Some government agency? Was Jonathan a spy? Who was this man I had lived with so long?
My meetings with Veronika continued on Thursdays in January. It was not always in cafes- sometimes we went to museums (her husband had no interest in art); once near her house, which made me uncomfortable, although she laughed at me. “It’s not as if we’re lovers,” she said. And then – I’m not sure exactly how – we were. I was never sure who made the final move. It seemed to me more of the same, friendship on a different level. Something like what it would have been like to sleep with Xenia. Once I smuggled her into my room – against the rules – which made her giggle. I learned a lot over the next weeks – her experience in the war (everything burning, chaos), as a teenager in ‘45 (the Russians! You can’t imagine), the secret of her husband’s past (He had no choice), the frustrations in her marriage (she wanted children). I was never sure what made me attractive for her – maybe curiosity. She asked many questions about being Jewish. That made me uncomfortable, somehow. She laughed at my nervousness
By Easter all the small hotels and pensione seemed more tawdry than adventurous. Thursdays were not always free for her. I was ready for a change.
“For goodness sake!” Lynda said out loud in her empty apartment, suddenly filled with people she never knew, including Jonathan. And who is Xenia? She left the pages and the box on a table. When she felt less angry, confused and disgusted, maybe she’d go on reading about this new person who had been Jonathan for her for twenty-eight years.
Like Pandora, she got curious. A few days later she picked up the pile wondering who else would appear.
The weather finally began to warm up in April. I was wasting some time at the flea market in Tiergarten when I spotted a familiar face. The woman was looking at some brass candlesticks. I stood behind her and murmured “Much too expensive.”
Lynda dropped the pages. “But that’s me! That was us!” she said out loud. She felt nervous. What would he write about that? She still remembered all the details from the first time she met him at the Amerika Haus reception. She hadn’t caught his name – John? Jonathan? No uniform, seemed nice, cagey about what he was doing in Berlin but definitely not a GI. Older, probably at least forty, almost twice as old as she was. She’d thought the chances of meeting him again were very small, so she was surprised when she met him at the market. She shook her head remembering her embarrassing mistake. But how could she have known? Thinking back, she didn’t know much about anything then. She went on, curious to know how it had been for him.
The chitchat went on. She shared an apartment. Interesting I thought, a kitchen. I was getting tired of restaurant meals.
She picked up an old brass candelabra from a table.
“Oh look, this is kind of cute isn’t it?” holding it up for me to see. For a minute I was stunned, shocked anyone could be that naïve. But then, she was so much younger than me. I just took it from her, put it back on the table, stayed calm. “You don’t really want this.”
“Why not?” she said.
“It’s a menorah, a Jewish candelabra made for a Jewish holiday. Whoever owned it originally was” – I stopped – “murdered.”
A shocked silence. She was really young and naïve.
“In the war.” I explained quietly.
Now she was really embarrassed, tried to apologize – too hard. I tried to cover it up for her, changed the subject. “Have you done any traveling?”
“I went down to Italy on Christmas break. It was wonderful, warm.” We were back on safe ground I thought until she asked “So what kind of work do you do that makes you travel so much?”
I thought wildly for a minute. “It’s a kind of consultancy. I give big companies advice about investments and things.” She nodded. Brilliant. Consultants -no one knows really what they do. I bought her a hot dog. She asked about restaurants.
Lynda looked up smiling, remembering that day at the flea market, Maggie in the next aisle, flirting with Achim, the crowds.
I was just about to go on listing my favorites when she said abruptly she had to get back home, do her plans for school next day. “Thanks for the hot dog. Bye.”
Maybe I came on too heavy, too old. But she was a nice girl, attractive, American – and with a kitchen. I wasn’t willing to let her go so easily. After a bit of pushing, I got her address. Down by the PX on the American island, might be convenient.
She shook her head. How cold, how calculating – and I never noticed- she thought.
My calendar that spring suddenly became very complicated: still seeing Veronika on Thursdays, maintaining my presence in all the bars/kneipe where reporters met and seeing managers to explore business possibilities. One advantage – my German was getting better.
Then came my brush with the German police: in June, I found myself on the street in front of the Opera when agents of the Shah’s secret police beat back protesting students with wooden batons. The Shah of Iran, a well-hated dictator had been invited to Berlin on an official visit. It was a shocking scene – apparent civilians, dark-haired men in suits and ties, ruthlessly beating young people then retreating behind police barricades. I hid in a doorway. This can’t be legal, I thought, watching the Berlin police bludgeon the demonstrators, pursuing them down side streets as they tried to escape. I wrote all this down but I didn’t tell Adam in DC how the fear welled up again: I was back in the taxi coming from the airport when I first heard the sounds of the police car. Making the streets judenrein or studentenrein, the same thing. This was not what I had signed up for.
She remembered the Dutschke protest that came later. That was awful – the mob rushing past, all the signs, then the American flag torn down and crushed under running feet. The two people, older than the protesters, turning away from the mob, shocked and angry, sitting on a curb, the woman holding her head, the man, his arm around her shoulders, shaking his head. A flash from the past.
Once back in the safety of my room on Bleibtreustrasse I thought long and hard about what I had seen and how I reacted to it, the paranoia. It was my first close experience of the protests and I promised myself, no matter what Adam and the contacts in Washington said, it would be the last time.
The mood on the streets got worse in summer when a policeman killed Benno Ohnesorg, an unarmed student. I stayed away.
I got in touch with Lynda from the flea market, took her out, saw her apartment. The four of us – Maggie, her boyfriend Achim, Lynda and me were a foursome by the end of the summer. I liked their place, an attic apartment with sloping walls and dormer windows on a quiet street, felt at home there. I could relax with Lynda, stop listening so hard, speak English, turn myself off. It was a kind of sanctuary. We were a couple. I held back from becoming more involved or talking seriously about the future. She didn’t either. After all, I’d be leaving soon and so would she when the Fulbright ended.
Okay, not so bad. At least he liked me and that little attic apartment in pokey Dahlem. Maggie and Achim – so long ago. Maggie married now in California and who knows where Achim is.
In October ‘67 I started to think of the end of my carte blanche year, the end of that extra money and PX privileges. What should I do? Go back to the States or somewhere else? I began to buy foreign newspapers and magazines at Bahnhof Zoo, looking for possible jobs. I could stay at MAPS, my law firm in Virginia, which would probably mean returning to the States. Did I want to leave Europe? I wasn’t sure.
Then Washington asked me to stay in Berlin until spring ’68. They still needed ‘eyes on’ in Berlin. My law firm agreed that it would be useful to have me in Berlin and asked me to come for a personal conference before the new year.
I was curious. I needed a break from the greyness of the Berlin winter anyway. I booked a pre-Christmas flight over Munich. I could spend some time there on the way back to Berlin to see another, undivided part of the country. It would give me some distance. Lynda and Maggie had their own plans for the holiday.
She remembered the little kitchen, the sloping ceilings, all the discussions with Maggie, the questions about boyfriends, who would spend the holidays where. She shook her head, thinking of the time she’d brought the frozen turkey from the PX, too big for their German oven, hacking away, trying to get the frozen legs off. We were all so young. Well, not Jonathan, already over forty.
In the vacant time in airports and on planes on the way to the US I thought about the future, or at least the next year. My work, what I was being paid for, was very abstract. I felt that four more months being the eyes and ears for whomever in Washington would be my own limit. I already felt the itch to sink my teeth, figuratively of course, into some new client. I missed the dance of negotiations.
It turned out that Malcolm, Anderson, Peabody and Steiner were also re-thinking my brief in Germany.
On the return flight I thought over their offer. A consortium of oil companies, alarmed by the Six Day War in the Middle East, was interested in the development of oil fields in the North Atlantic. Would I consider becoming a consultant directly for the consortium rather than a consulting member of the firm? That way, I could accept other clients, giving me flexibility. MAPS would still employ me, but pay an honorarium rather than a salary. They also suggested it might be more advisable for all concerned if I were to change my base to somewhere more central. I promised to think it over but actually I was happy with the changes and accepted most of them before my return flight. As for their last suggestion, changing base from Berlin, that needed more consideration. It would be unwise to break off contacts too suddenly, factoring in Lynda almost unconsciously and realizing I actually had already decided.
Another thing she never heard of. Factoring! What if he had left completely then? Could she have paid for the apartment myself? Maybe not.
It was very cold in Munich. I walked to the Feldherrenhalle, site of the Hitler putsch in 1923 just to say I’d been there. Not that much to see in the cold. What was it about the German past that fascinated me? The horror of the past contrasted with the ordinary German lives around me? Was I trying to forget the history or remember it? Looking around the Christmas Market in front of the Rathaus, it all seemed a little bogus, not any better than Christmas in the States. There were many Bavarian outfits- but just as many tourists or foreigners. I bought some tree ornaments for Lynda then treated myself to dinner – barbecued suckling pig and potato dumplings, washed down with ‘a maas’ a beaker of Bavarian beer, – tasty but too heavy.
No, I wouldn’t like living in Munich. There was too much left of the old, too much cherishing of what once had been. Maybe the army should have destroyed more, not left so many old buildings standing as if the war had never been. Nothing of that in Berlin and that suited me just fine.
She remembered those two Fulbright Christmases, -’66,’67- one by herself in Italy (so warm), one in Berlin with roommates and boyfriends, even Jonathan for a while later. That was the time he had to go to the States and stopped in Munich on the way back, brought those funny straw stars, too late for the Christmas tree.
Inhaling the fumes of hot spiced glühwein as I walked around the Market, I decided to keep my base in Berlin, either on Bleibtreustrasse or, if I played my cards right, in Lynda’s attic apartment on Hüttenweg. If I needed a temporary base in Stockholm or Helsinki, closer to the oil fields in the North Atlantic I could find it later if necessary.
Returning to Berlin was like a homecoming – a feeling that completely surprised me. Frau Schmidt, the customers and bartenders in my favorite kneipen were all glad to see me again and I was glad to be back. It was nice to be with Lynda again.
I remember that New Year’s. It was nice, I remember that too. I was still teaching at the Kennedy School, one more year then the Fulbright would end.
In April ‘68 I bumped into Marv Feldman who greeted me like an old friend, as if being Jewish were some kind of bond. Not that he was intrusive or nosey, just very friendly toward someone he hadn’t seen in over a year. After the usual questions, Marv mentioned that Passover was coming up this Friday, did I have any plans? If not, would I like to join the seder at his house.
I hadn’t been to a Seder since I finished law school. After my grandmother died, the long prayers were read in the English translation. For me, the mystery was gone. It was just long and boring.
I was about to refuse regretfully but then I remembered how Marv had gone out of his way to take me on that long tour of the city. “Thanks. As long as I don’t have to ask the four questions.”
“Don’t worry. We have a young daughter. We start at 6 pm. Come a little earlier. Here, I’ll write the address. It’s near the PX.”
That Friday I bought some flowers for Mrs. Feldman. She turned out to be a short woman, probably overweight by some standards, ‘zaftig’ my grandmother would have said approvingly. There was a son about eleven years old and a daughter who looked to be six or seven.
Everything in the dining room was familiar – the seder plate, the matzoh under a cloth napkin, the wine glasses at every place and one in the table’s center. It took me back – a seder after all these years, familiar and strange all at once. I began to feel there were two Jonathans at the table – the younger one, remembering; the older one, detached and slightly cynical.
The daughter asked the four questions in English, the Hebrew running silently through my head in the old singsong. They alternated reading the story of the flight from Egypt in the Haggadah, the children and me in English, Marv and Mrs. Feldman in what sounded to me like very fluent Hebrew. Occasionally they would give a page number as a prompt.
As the seder went on I felt myself entering into the spirit of the evening. It was hard to maintain my distance. The memories flooded back. I pretended to stare as seriously as the kids at the glass of wine in the middle of the table after the door was opened for the prophet Elijah. The level was going down, wasn’t it? Elijah had come, a welcome stranger, invited to share.
With a shock I realized I was the stranger here. When it was time to find the afikomen I remembered the wild search through the house in New Rochelle. Without the piece of matzoh the seder could not continue. There’d always been hefty bargaining with my father for the matzoh’s return. Marv gave in more easily. By the time they got to “One Kid, One Kid” the traditional song at the end of the seder, I was almost able to sing along.
After dinner, I thanked the Feldmans again. “It was like a visit home.” (‘and back in time’ I added to myself.) The obligatory four glasses of wine at the seder made everyone sleepy. At 9:30 it was easy for me to make a decent exit.
The outside air scented with the pine trees in nearby Grunewald had a sobering effect. Walking home, I wondered how Lynda or Maggie would have reacted. Maggie would have been polite, California sociable. Lynda would probably have asked a lot of questions. I smiled until the memory of my last seder popped up, the fights afterward, the pain and the loneliness. It was a long time ago, all over now.
Lynda sat a long time, thinking. What pain? What happened a long time ago? He never talked about it. Like the Jewish thing – he never made a fuss, just sort of said it. Made no difference to me or Maggie or any of us.
When Maggie left for California in summer, a whole new phase started for me. I said farewell to Frau Schmidt and Bleibtreustrasse and moved most of my stuff to Lynda’s place on Hüttenweg, not moving in exactly, just leaving some boxes in the spare room. This was only a temporary measure to help Lynda with the rent now that she wanted to stay on in Berlin after the fellowship. It didn’t matter to me or to the bank account if the rent went to Frau Schmidt or to Lynda.
What went into that bank account was now up to me. I was starting my consultancy, independent for the first time. Actually, I enjoyed making new contacts and was surprised how much more room I had to negotiate. I had to be out of Berlin often. Lynda never minded when I was away.
Well, I was busy tutoring, building up my own kind of business, she thought. He never asked.
As MAPS had suggested I’d been up to Helsinki and Stockholm, looking for a possible second base of operations but it was too cold and grim up there for me, even in summer. Finally, I tried Copenhagen, not so grim, still near the water, good flight connections. The sea air reminded me of Manhattan and the trips we used to take in summer to the Rockaways, to say nothing of the pastry – real Danish. I felt almost at home. Did I really feel more at home in Copenhagen or was I just glad to leave the Wall and the weight of German history back in Berlin? I wasn’t sure.
I knew no one in the city, maybe that was why I invited Lynda up to Copenhagen for the weekend that fall. But what could have made me to ask her to move permanently? Was it the spring weather? I was actually relieved when she decided to stay in Berlin. Lynda in the apartment on Hüttenweg was my suitcase in Berlin, always there when I came back.
That afternoon at the Louisiana museum – it was strange. It was the first time he’d ever invited her. It shocked her. She told Christine about it, remembering how talking about it to someone else made her decide not to move – that and liking Berlin so much.
My business trips were becoming more frequent and longer – up to Bergen and Trondheim via Oslo and down to Lebanon and Syria. The oil business was thriving. I dealt with Americans, Syrians, Lebanese, even Israelis who had started drilling off shore after the war of ’67, looking for oil near the Suez Canal.
We had one nice weekend in Berlin that fall, a break in the trip from Trondheim to Beirut. Lynda seemed reserved when I arrived on Friday, but after our dinner on the lake on Saturday she was the old Lynda, full of excitement for her new activities, learning German, still looking for another apartment in Kreuzberg. I pretended enthusiasm but really hoped she would give up the search, couldn’t imagine living somewhere else.
She remembered that weekend. She’d wanted to go to a movie – Horst’s idea to make her German better. Gave up all her own plans. It turned out all right but she was so confused. Thought a lot about their relationship, got depressed because she couldn’t decide if it was love or habit.
What did they share? Was Jonathan a vital part of her life? Were they a couple in the accepted sense of the word or just companions with sex on the side?
Lynda talked enthusiastically about her plans for the future, not about us or our plans. We had one strange conversation about kids but she wasn’t really attached to the idea and for me it was out of the question. I never mentioned what I did when I was out of town and she never asked. It was one of the things I liked about her – and about living in Europe. I could be just another affable American, Mr. Nobody, without a history. Nobody knew- or labeled me – by where I lived, my job or where I’d gone to school – or made assumptions about my future.
Yes, Mr. Nobody, Mr. anonymous, Mr. Mystery man. That’s what he wanted for himself and everybody else. He never asked her about the English story hours she’d started at the Library or how she created a whole new department for young people later. For him she was Ms. Nobody, that’s all.
In the following years I didn’t have much time to get to see Lynda in Berlin. Maybe it was just as well. I had the feeling she was involved with something more than language lessons with her German teacher, can’t remember his name.
Horst. Oh my God – with his crewneck sweaters, chinos and perfect English and Katzelmacher and Brecht, explaining everything. The discussions in the library, in the streets, in the apartment – that evening, the shy invitation. She smiled. For a few minutes Horst was with her again: waking up in the mornings at his house or hers, long walks and talks in Grunewald, the movie discussions, the German-language-culture-history and everything-else lessons. And the silly things she could never do with Jon like the roller coaster ride at the German-American Volksfest, choosing the costumes for the Faschings Ball at the art school, walking home in the snow because the subways had closed. She’d felt light, happy the whole time, the way she’d felt on that first trip to Italy. The affair with Horst had been perfect as long as it lasted. When we met in Hamburg later, he was different – a business man in a suit, not a student any more. Maybe I was different too – a visitor. We’d both realized it was over.
Then what I always called ‘the ghost apartment in Kreuzberg’ suddenly became available. Lynda was thrilled. I couldn’t come to see it or help move – too busy. I told her to just pack up my stuff along with hers and find a corner in the new place until I had time to come. I wasn’t curious about the apartment. Lynda told me there would be plenty of room for me and my stuff. I would wait and see.
In addition to everything else, my father died in 1973 – a heart attack, a real one, not like the warning after the seder back in 1953. I flew home for the funeral, but didn’t stay for the week of mourning. I couldn’t stand Estelle that long.
Of course – New Rochelle, his mother, that life and how he hated it all. The one thing he told me. Maybe it was the mother who caused all the trouble. Mrs. Portnoy? Jon had refused to read it. Was it too close to home or too far off base? A question and another thing we couldn’t share. What had happened in 1953? He never mentioned his past.
I’d told him all about my parent’s death in the car accident, how my god-mother Auntie Lynn had raised me, the reason I was Lynda, not Linda. I’d even told him about my boyfriends – not all of them and not all about them. From Jonathan – nothing. She shook her head.
Besides I wanted to get back to Beirut and the woman I’d met there. Alesha was a Lebanese Christian, working in the office I shared with another agent. At work she was cool and controlled, but outside she was a whole different woman. She showed me all the city, the Eastern part, the West part and the Old City in the middle; took me up into the Bsharri Mountains – she skied, I watched; took me sailing at Batroun. She was enthusiastic, loved everything – her country – even this middle aged American. Then the civil war broke out. From 1976 on it was impossible to get back. I was stuck in Berlin. The oil business was slow. Everybody was searching for oil reserves in their own countries. In ’77 I heard through business channels that my office had been directly hit by a bomb. I tried to get news of Alesha – nothing. I was still stuck in Berlin, not much work to distract me, living with Lynda in her new apartment in Kreuzberg. I didn’t like the neighborhood as much as the old one. Lynda was absorbed in her new work in the library. She must have noticed my mood, probably the reason for that funny road trip. It was supposed to be to the mountains near Munich, but she was nice enough to change when I asked to go on, to get out of Germany. It was a nice change.
That was the year I took my vacation with him. He was in Berlin more often and longer than before, drinking more and doing less when he was in town, I’d noticed. Ever since the move to Tempelherrenstrasse he’d changed. I thought maybe it was just ‘Island Fever’, that urge all West Berliners had to get off the island and out of the city every once in a while. I guess I was wrong. Alesha – another one.
In the eighties my old contacts in D.C. got in touch again. The Soviets were beginning to soften up. I had a few assignments with that. But ultimately, on my sixty-fifth birthday, I felt I was in the wrong time and the wrong place. In some kind of weird coincidence, the Wall fell and my mother died at the same time. She’d been in an old age home for years. I had no contact, but, as only survivor, I got the notice. It took me couple of days to work myself up to even booking a flight home. The funeral was a ghostly affair. Most of her friends were already dead.
I’d asked him. “Don’t you want to get there before she goes?” He was quiet. I didn’t know whether to comfort him or push him to go. It was his decision. It took two days for him to decide, another day to find a flight. Strange.
I took the time to go into the city. I still loved New York and made a point of visiting East 99th Street whenever I came back. This time I was shocked to see that the old brownstone had been demolished to make way for a new hospital complex. I thought of old Ben Lipsky, my first boss – must be dead by now – quoting Robert Moses “Build we must for a greater New York”.
On the flight back to Berlin I wasn’t depressed. It was more the feeling I had lived too long – Estelle certainly had. And then the contrast with Lynda, at a kind of peak in her life, the new apartment – well, new to me – and Berlin so different now. I really felt misplaced. Where did I belong?
Life went along for a few years, no big events. Then suddenly I had the urge to straighten things out with Lynda somehow, keep my promise, tell her about my past, all the things I had taken care not to talk about. Bought a really special bottle of wine, a grand cru, in celebration of the five years since the Wall came down and five years since my mother’s death, I told her. I explained about how the Jews commemorate a death by lighting a candle on the anniversary of a death, a Jahrzeitskerze. My mother had one in a red glass for my grandmother. This was red wine, the right color.
I opened the bottle, set it aside to breathe. Then I tried to keep a promise I once made to her – the business about my mother. But I was tired – old man after all. I was trying to say good-by without hurting her too much. I don’t think I did a very good job. Maybe I’ll try to write tomorrow morning before I leave. If not, I’ll leave these notes, then she’ll know everything about Jonathan and Yonatan and Jon.
There was more but I was done. Maybe I’ll read the rest, maybe not, she thought. A week later she pulled the rest of the pages down from the corner of the closet.
In my first year at NYU law school, I felt like a very small fish in a shark-filled ocean. No more fooling around in bars and dormitories. This was real life, each man for himself.
When I had time to think about it, I felt out of place. The law was supposed to offer me independence, a wide choice of a career but that first year there was no independence and no free choice. It was all cut and very dry.
I was still commuting from New Rochelle, my social life ruled by the train schedule – train to Grand Central then the subway down to the law school in the Village – 23 years old and still living at home. I shared a beer or coffee after a lecture with fellow students, there was no one I could call a friend and not many women.
There was only one in my law school class, a short woman with long dark hair, not very attractive and shy. I never saw her at parties or bars, but I was interested. I couldn’t tell where she was from. Italian? Spanish? Other? That bothered me. She had an unusual name, sounded like Cindy but that didn’t seem right.
She was in my seminar on family law and talked a lot. One day after a discussion I followed her as she headed for the door, held the door open, smiled and said “Hey, that was pretty sharp, what you said at the end.”
She was surprised. I introduced myself.
“My name’s Jonathan. I didn’t catch yours. It sounded like ‘Cindy’.
She smiled. “No, not Cindy, Xenia.”
“No, just Greek.”
By this time, we were headed for the stairs. I’d pulled up beside her.
She made a face, shook her head. “No, American.”
“.. but my grandparents came from Greece.” She said.
“Bye, Jonathan” as she vanished into the law library.
Well, at least she remembered my name, I thought. It was a start.
Ah, Xenia – finally.
Around the coffee machine everybody was talking about the Owen Lattimore hearings, FBI documents and the state of the Rosenberg trial. It was tough for the Rosenberg’s kids, I thought. They weren’t Commies. I didn’t like McCarthy and his bullying tactics any more than most of my fellow students. But no one said it out loud. It was too easy to be branded a ‘pinko’.
In second year I was busier, tutoring in my bit of free time. It was great to earn money and to know more – at least more than the undergrads.
Xenia was still there but with a short, curly haircut. She seemed feisty, more self-possessed. She talked more in class, asked good questions. We had coffee together often, standing near the machine in the lobby. For her we were just friends – fine with me. Maybe she had a boyfriend somewhere who had urged her to get a haircut. I like long hair better, but I told her it looked good.
It turned out she commuted from Staten Island. She told me she was going to concentrate in Family Law. I was keeping all options open as long as possible.
My curriculum changed too that year. There were more electives and fewer required courses. It was also more complex. I joined several study groups and met more people.
Near end of semester, the evening sessions of the financial law study group often went past midnight. Xenia and I had to leave in a hurry, racing for the Staten Island ferry or the train at Grand Central. One evening Xenia suggested we all move to her uncle’s diner on Greenwich Avenue and 12th St. The offer of unlimited coffee from her uncle was an offer we couldn’t refuse.
“What about the ferry?” I asked.
She waved her hand “I can sleep at my uncle and aunt’s place on 18th St.”
I thought a minute. “Hey Oliver, can I sleep on your sofa again if I need to?”
“Sure.” Oliver mumbled. He was one of the lucky ones with a place of his own, a good-natured, bright guy, easy, not one of the sharks. I sometimes crashed on the sofa in his tiny apartment after a date with some undergrad.
It became almost a tradition to meet at the Athena Diner in the evenings, sitting together at a circular booth at the back. We got to know Uncle Dimitri and the steady parade of various waitresses who worked for him. For most of the law students they were part of the wallpaper like the stools at the counter or the revolving cake display in the corner. But I noticed especially one good-looking woman in her twenties, who often read a book between waiting on customers. One night I asked her what she was reading.
“Not reading, learning lines.” Turned out Joanne was an actress, just working until she got a theater job. I couldn’t get very far with her, not much beyond kidding around. I started teasing her, saying “Good evening, Bette Davis or are we Vivian Leigh tonight?”
“Oh, It’s Perry Como. Good evening, Mr. Como. Win any cases today?”
I liked her easy sarcasm and quick answers, found myself looking forward to seeing her at the diner. I never met an actress before.
One night she invited me to a showcase, no money but a chance for her to be seen. I could come if I wanted to, as I was so curious. And I really went (to my own surprise) about a week later to this funny room behind a bar on Mulberry Street filled with folding chairs and a few bored-looking men, probably agents and directors plus excited family and friends of the performers.
When I saw Joanne on the stage doing a scene from “Anna Christie” I was shocked. She seemed taller and very beautiful, but why had she chosen a scene that was so depressing? True, her speeches were very dramatic. Anna/Joanne told the story of her rape and descent into prostitution very convincingly, so much so that for a moment I wondered. Maybe Joanne really had been a whore. I knew nothing about her past. But when I saw her smile taking a bow, I recognized the Joanne I knew. It was all an act.
After the performance we had drinks in the bar. She had chosen the scene for the range it offered, she explained. She laughed my naïve reactions. She talked about her acting lessons at the HB Studio, the grueling auditions, the disappointments when she lost out and the tremendous satisfaction of performing when she had the chance. I was fascinated. She was so full of energy, so determined, so different from the girls in New Rochelle and the undergrads I’d dated.
We left the bar, wandering the deserted streets, talking. She’d always wanted to be an actress even when she was a kid in New Jersey. I told her about New Rochelle, how cramped I felt in the tight Jewish community. She loved performance – that moment onstage. I tried to explain why I chose law, how winning arguments and debates made it seem logical. She was lucky, I told her. Not everyone found work they loved. It was 1:30 am when I dropped her at the subway. I slept at Oliver’s.
Winter semester in my third year I was partnered with Oliver in the mock trial course. We were handed a food poisoning case. Our client, the plaintiff, was suing for extensive damages. We’d watched other mock trials and knew that the professor/judge wanted the trial to be as realistic as possible. Sitting in the library, thinking over our tactics, we wondered who could play the part of the plaintiff. Then I thought of Joanne. “I’ve seen her onstage and she’s really good.” That convinced Oliver.
I didn’t mention I’d been seeing Joanne since the summer. Not really dating, she had no time for that, more like sharing time together, listening to each other while walking arm in arm through the city or sitting together in a park. She was someone special for me.
Joanne was enthusiastic. I had to promise that we would prepare her as thoroughly as any playwright so she would be convincing and be able to answer questions from the other side.
We used Oliver’s tiny apartment to practice with her. Joanne was quick and intuitive, describing the pain and agony she’d suffered from the rancid coffeecake – loss of salary, damage to her looks, so important in her job as a receptionist. The whole thing was a lark to her. In the event, we lost the case but won praise from the professor/judge for the excellent preparation of the plaintiff.
After the mock trial Joanne seemed very quiet. Walking around lower Manhattan with me at the end of her shift, she admitted that she felt low. “It’s always like that after a performance. You get all that adrenalin up for the show, then afterward you fall into a black hole.” I tried to cheer her up but she made a face. “Don’t bother. It’ll pass. It always does.” Still as I rode back to New Rochelle, I worried about her.
He really listened to her, shared with her.
After the mock trial I concentrated on studying for the finals and the Bar exam. At home it was all about “your next professional step” – from my father. My mother Estelle suddenly insisted on my presence at Friday evening dinners so I could meet “a nice girl”. I stayed away as much as possible, pleading exams, but couldn’t avoid several painful evenings meeting young women who were as uncomfortable as I was.
Then I had the brilliant idea of inviting Joanne to the Passover seder. They would see I had my own life and stop making suggestions and mixing in. I told Joanne she’d be helping me out if she came. She said she’d love to and asked many questions about what she could expect at the ritual. She was curious about New Rochelle and my family after hearing so much about them.
To my parents I just said I had a friend I’d like to invite, she was curious about his background – thereby revealing it was a woman but purposely avoiding details. My parents agreed. They would be thrilled to meet my friends from law school, especially as I had kept them so secret.
The Seder started as it always did – the four questions, my father’s explanation. But seeing Joanne there, I realized how deep my feelings for her were. Was I in love? I wasn’t sure.
She was very attentive – to the family, to every part of the seder. Afterward she thanked my mother, turning to my father she said “Thank you so much for including me. I’ve always been curious about Jewish holidays. I’m so sorry I have to leave.”
There was a long moment of silence. Murray’s jaw dropped. Estelle gasped. I quickly said I’d drive her to the station and bustled her out before she could see my parent’s reaction. Had she noticed? I hoped not. On the way to the train I complimented her on her ‘performance’. “No problem. I had fun. See you soon.” as she ducked out of the car and ran for the train just coming in to the station
I put off going home, knowing exactly what was waiting for me. Walking around the neighborhood, looking at the lit windows, I knew so well what was going on inside – the wine, the blessings, the songs, the reading about the flight from Egypt – the whole Passover ritual, the same every year of my life. I saw it going on and on – in my own family, with a wife, children – years and years of sameness, and hated the predictability, the monotony. I had to get away from the narrowness of the life my parents expected of me, had to graduate, pass the Bar exam, start my own life.
Back home, I found chaos – my mother screaming, father trying to quiet her. She turned on me, screaming “A shikse at the Seder. What were you thinking?” She went on and on. My father suddenly collapsed. I froze. Then my mother was on the phone screaming for an ambulance. “This is all your fault. If your father dies, you will have it on your conscience.” The ambulance arrived. My mother traveled with my father, I followed in the family car.
By morning my father was out of danger but the accusations from my mother were just as violent and now full of self-pity. What had she done to deserve this? Etc.etc.
What a fiasco! Obviously, a mistake trying to sneak Joanne into the family below my mother’s radar. What had I been thinking? Was I unconsciously trying to present a fait accompli, something my parents would have to accept – Joanne as my fiancé? It was obviously what they’d thought. Did I want that? Unsure, confused, guilty, desperate to avoid my mother’s hysteria, I escaped on the first possible train to the relative sanity of Manhattan, pleading final exams and the Bar exam.
Lynda shook her head. Still undecided. An early development.
The next morning, I went by the diner. No sign of Joanne. Uncle Dimitri said she’d come in that morning and quit, but left a note for me.
By the time you get this I will be on my way west. I know this is a shock. I finally got an offer after the showcase. I didn’t want to tell you before because I wasn’t sure it would work out. It took a long time but I got the contract a week ago. It’s really a great chance for me – a big part, a decent theater in Chicago. I couldn’t say no.
I did put them off until after the visit to your family. I felt I owed you that. I hope your family didn’t mind my presence too much.
I know this letter seems an easy way out. Jonathan, please don’t let it destroy what we had. I will always treasure the memory of our long walks and talks. You have been a very special person for me.
It just seems time for me, maybe for both of us, to move on.
I was shocked, angry, tried to piece together the timing. Why didn’t she tell me about the possibility of a job in Chicago? She seemed so honest, but maybe I was just a small unimportant part of her life. Ashamed, dumb, naïve, I would never make that mistake again. I felt used, felt our relationship was cheapened. I was hurt, my trust violated.
I caught the last train to New Rochelle, calculating the chances of moving out even before the Bar exam. If Joanne could move, so could I. I’d start looking tomorrow. Once I had my own place to live and a decent job I’d would be free, free to live my own life.
Really that quick – just let go after so much? Or was he talking himself in to it?
In 1953 I joined Lipsky, Lipsky and Flynn, a smallish firm without a specific focus, and found a place to live in Manhattan. I was sure neither job nor apartment would be permanent. Certainly not the furnished apartment on East 99th St. I shared with countless cockroaches. Like most New York City apartments, it was infested.
If it had not been for the old roll top desk squeezed into the front room, I would never have taken the railroad flat. That and the very low rent had convinced me. I got used to the penetrating smell of fermenting hops from the nearby brewery and developed my own technique with the roaches. Before turning on the kitchen light I would clap hands twice and call “Everybody out!” then watch as they scurried for the corners when the light came on.
It was crummy, but it was a start. I met Xenia about once a week for lunch at her uncle’s diner. She was still commuting from Staten Island but had taken a job in the city’s judicial system. We traded gossip about our colleagues and bosses, moaning about the amount of work. I was at the office fifteen hours a day. Xenia, kept regular working hours, nine to five – the advantage of the civil service. Xenia said it would take her a year just to find out who did what and where their offices were. I told her about the partners – Ben Lipsky, round and jovial, Sam Lipsky, thin and suspicious, Billy Flynn, thin and mostly absent.
When I arrived at the diner to meet Xenia the next time, she was nowhere to be seen. Dimitri shrugged his shoulders. He hadn’t seen her. I had just ordered the Blue Plate Special when she showed up. “So sorry.” She said breathlessly slipping onto the stool beside me. “They sent me way up to the North Bronx. The trains! Forget it! Had to deliver a subpoena. I’m starved.” Xenia examined the menu.
“I’m having the Blue Plate.”
“Oh good. I’ll have that too,” she said to the waitress.
While we waited for lunch, I told Xenia my news about the coming trip to the West Coast. She asked what it was all about.
Just then their food came. Between bites I told her about Billy Flynn’s request. I should fly to Seattle to see a mysterious stranger who would make a “sort of affidavit”. It had to be taken by someone trustworthy, not known as a friend or employee of a very busy man – “an old friend of mine, friend of the family so to speak”, Flynn said. I asked him who I‘d be representing. That made Flynn uncomfortable. Finally, he told me he’s from a well-known family, outside New York, politically involved, upper crust and definitely on the side of the angels. That’s all I needed to know.
“But what’s it about?” Xenia asked.
I shrugged. “I’ll find out when I’m there.”
Xenia frowned and shook her head.
The whole trip was strange. I waited for three days in the hotel bar until finally some guy asked if I was from New York. This was the password; Flynn had told me. This guy, Ed something, led me to a deserted church. Inside a man, looked like a longshoreman, was waiting in the shadows. He told me about suspected theft, malfeasance, bribery and extortion by a very powerful man at the top of the driver’s local union. Finally I asked him if he would sign a formal list? He absolutely refused. Said it was never part of the deal. No names.
There I was. A list, hardly an affidavit. Ed took me back to the hotel. “So, that’s it?” I asked.
“Listen, this is just the beginning.” Ed said. “We – my paper – can’t do anything about these gangsters out here, the president of the Teamsters Union is too big, too politically powerful, but if someone could make some noise in DC, maybe someone would listen. It’s gotta be national, not local, otherwise it’ll get throttled – the story – and maybe some people too.”
I was shocked. The Teamsters – weren’t they linked up with the mafia? What kind of game was Billy Flynn playing?
The list was a long one. There had been violence around contracts, drivers coerced into joining the union, complaints about mismanagement of the pension fund squashed with threats or with actual violence, the union president’s rent-free home on a lake paid for out of union funds. But without a signature it was a piece of paper, nothing more. Who was the magician in New England who could turn it into a powerful tool?
I couldn’t resist the feeling I’d been played, especially by Billy Flynn. If all the partners were involved where did that leave me? Maybe in the wrong law firm, a wrong choice at the very beginning of my career.
The next day I went to Flynn’s office. He was out of town. I left the list – as quick and easy as that. What was all the secrecy? Maybe Billy Flynn just liked drama, made a fuss about sending me, then decided it was nothing. And I got a trip to Seattle out of it. Not so bad. I put it out of my mind.
The next time I managed to meet Xenia was months later and this time not at the diner. She called me at the office, said she was very busy, had no time to go up to the diner, but had some news for me. We met at a sandwich place closer to the court, grabbed our sandwiches and went to a nearby park for lunch. It was crowded. We found some free space and settled down with our paper bags.
“So. What’s the big news?” Then I saw her left hand. The diamond glittered on her finger. “Wow! What is this?”
“Exactly what it looks like, Counselor.”
“It looks like an engagement ring, but is it? When did this happen, and with whom?
“Why are you so surprised? I do have a life, you know. It’s someone I’ve known forever. He’s in med school so it will be a while until we can actually marry.”
“So, he’s from Staten Island?”
“Yeah, and Greek too and from my neighborhood.”
It took me a minute to digest all this. I had been convinced that Xenia would turn out to be a real career woman, not a housewife. Why had I assumed that? Because I saw her that way or wanted to? Because it was easier for me?
Lynda smiled, thought good for Xenia – and who says she can’t be both?
I pulled my thoughts back. “That’s great. I hope he’s worth it. I mean, I hope he knows he’s getting a diamond too.”
“Well, that’s debatable. But everyone is very happy, including me.”
“Will you go on working?”
“Absolutely. And he’s fine with that.” I nodded. “There’s something else. I was curious about your trip to Seattle last fall and did a little research. The president of the Teamsters out there is Dave Beck and there’s a young lawyer attached to a Senate committee who’s very curious about the Teamsters. His name is Robert Kennedy. His brother is Senator John Kennedy.” She looked at me. “You follow?” I frowned.
“Senator Kennedy from Massachusetts.” She prodded. I must have looked bewildered.
“The guy who sent you out there was Flynn, right? Don’t you see – an Irishman helping an Irishman. ‘A friend of the family’ he said, didn’t he? They stick together, like the Greeks on Staten Island, like the Jews in New Rochelle. At least that’s what you said. It’s what you used to complain about.”
I sat back on the bench trying to work it out, my mind working double time,
the half-eaten sandwich forgotten.
Xenia smiled. “You get it now. I gotta run. Listen, be careful. I don’t know about the Irish but the Teamsters…” she shook head. “Just be careful.” And she was gone.
I sat for a long time, shocked by Xenia’s engagement – but why should I be? I’d never made a move on her, not since that first day, considered her more a colleague, a friend, someone much smarter. And she was smarter- otherwise how could she have guessed about Billy Flynn’s connection to the Kennedys? I couldn’t really follow her reasoning – too prejudiced. On the other hand, everyone knew about the Kennedy family, even I did. But that Billy Flynn had such high-flying connections – who knew? Life –even for a lawyer -was not as cut and dried as I’d thought.
The next two years were fairly humdrum, leaving me plenty of time to wonder. Was the law right for me? Was Lipsky, Lipsky and Flynn the right firm? Maybe I should have become a civil servant like Xenia. At least she had normal working hours. All that Perry Mason stuff – the insurmountable wall of evidence, the indisputable argument I’d admired when I was eighteen – those moments of triumph were invisible from where I stood.
The subways were getting on my nerves. The women I dated were only interested in getting married and settling down somewhere in the suburbs with a ‘man in the grey flannel suit’ like in the movie. I hated the idea. Sometimes I had the feeling I’d missed something with Xenia back in law school. But – water under the bridge now.
Then came Flynn’s offer to work for the Kennedy family up in Boston ‘for a while’. The Kennedys, John and Bobby, were up and coming. John was the junior Senator from Massachusetts with an eye on the White House. Bobby, still working on the McCarthy Committee was more interested in chasing drugs and government corruption than in hunting Communists. This seemed an honest assignment for a month or more, not another clandestine errand to Seattle for an “almost affidavit“. It had been two years since my mysterious trip to Seattle, but I was sure the ‘guy in New England’, the one who ‘would do something in Washington’ was one of the Kennedys. Xenia had been right.
It turned out I was to handle any legal problems bothering Kennedy’s constituents, from curtailed leases to zoning laws to liquor permits. The work wasn’t so different from my last three years, but Boston was definitely different.
Peggy, who ran the office, found a room for me on very proper Beacon Hill.
I liked the slower pace in Boston – for a while. I got to know the secretaries and the assistants ‘up on the Hill’ in the State House and sometimes joined ‘business’ lunches at Durgin Park down in Faneuil Market.
It took me about two weeks to clear up the backlog of problems. What came in the door was mostly small stuff but the ‘clients’ were very grateful for the prompt help. I felt like a small cog in a large political machine – just a means of enforcing Kennedy’s reputation as someone who took care of his own.
I had time on my hands even though my month in Boston was not over. Then,
by chance I bumped into my old law school friend Oliver at Durgin Park. Oliver had joined a white shoe law firm in Boston right after graduation. He was the same – relaxed, friendly. He reminisced about the mock trial.
“Whatever happened to that girl, what was her name, the plaintiff?” Oliver asked. “She vanished.” (pushing down that memory.)
Oliver shook his head. “Remember those study groups at the Athena Diner? What a lot of coffee we drank back then. How is Xenia? Do you ever see her?”
Again Xenia – even in Boston, even from Oliver. It must have been obvious to everyone but Jon.
I told him what I knew. “She seems happy in the court system. How about you? Will you stay in Boston?”
Oliver said he was happy with his choice. He liked the work and the people.
Oliver, the guy with the rare apartment during law school, who never tutored or picked up odd jobs during those three years, probably came from a similar background and fit right into an old New England firm. Compared to them, the Kennedys were parvenus. Everyone knew Joseph Kennedy senior had mixed with some fairly suspicious types during Prohibition. Still, Oliver was impressed with my activities for the Kennedy sons. “Better stick close, Jonathan. Those two boys are going to go far. It’s only three years to the next election.” I, of course, had never thought of that.
I cleaned out my desk, briefing Peggy on outstanding business and packing. She’d be sorry to see me go, she said. “But maybe you’ll be back. Kennedy people stick together.” I wasn’t sure I qualified as a “Kennedy person”. I’d never even seen any of the Kennedys in my month in the city. “You never know.”
Then Ben Lipsky sent me to Brooklyn. Off the books, family business. “It’s my brother-in-law. Let me explain.”
‘Parole?’ I thought. ‘Fraud? Divorce?’
“See, my sister-in-law doesn’t understand the ramifications. For her it seems clear – if her husband’s company wants to build, it should be able to build. That’s New York after all, like Robert Moses says– “build we must for a greater New York”, right?” Ben Lipsky shifted again in his seat, took a deep breath.
“See, it’s the Italians. Some kid owns this crappy pizzeria in a little two-story on a corner lot in the wrong spot, inherited it from his dad and he won’t sell. It’s your job to convince him, without involving the Mafia. Tricky, because his uncle is ‘connected’. Here’s the details. Now, go out to Brooklyn, talk to them and get this thing fixed.”
He tossed me a folder and waved toward the door, pushing Robert Moses, urban development, the Mafia and me out of his office. ‘Just a real estate deal with some heavy negotiations’ I thought, reassuring myself.
The folder contained an empty letterhead printed with the name Empire Construction, an address in Long Island City, telephone/ fax numbers and a scrap of paper with ‘Vico” and a telephone number scrawled in pencil – hardly “details”. I couldn’t reach anyone by phone and decided to go out to Brooklyn myself.
The neighborhood was full of mom-and-pop stores, small places on street level with two to three floors of apartments above. I heard mainly Italian on the streets, Spanish now and then, more when I passed a school, the kids playing in the schoolyard at recess.
It reminded me of my own neighborhood in Manhattan, once German, with a famous German bakery and beer halls. Now there were more and more Puerto Ricans, more bodegas, more Spanish spoken on the streets.
The pizzeria was full of kids spending their allowance on slices, joking in Spanish as they came out. Obviously, the neighborhood was changing. If the Italians were moving to a different neighborhood, wouldn’t it make more sense to move the pizzeria too? Vico couldn’t be making a huge profit on pizza per slice.
It was the beginning of a bargaining position. It would depend on who Vico was, hopefully the owner, not the uncle, and how much the ‘connected’ uncle wanted to risk – The Pizza War of ’57? I doubted it would come to that, especially as the Mafia itself was so invested in making money. It would all be a matter of negotiation.
It turned out that Empire was willing to make a new offer and, more importantly, planned to start only in a year or two. This would be better for Vico than the abrupt end of his family’s business.
It all ran as I expected except for the connected uncle. At one of the meetings he had appeared with Vico, standing near the door – listened to everything, said nothing, and left – a scene in a movie. At the next meeting Vico agreed. The construction company agreed, as I knew they would. Vico was happy. The uncle might have been happy – or not. At least he didn’t murder anyone. I never told Ben Lipsky the details, I had the feeling he didn’t want to know.
And I never told anyone about the offer from the uncle whose ‘organization’ could always use a smart young lawyer.
A consigliere for the Mafia was not an option but what was?
Maybe I needed a change of scene, a new apartment, a new job. But I kept postponing – used to the roaches, used to the routine at LL&F, the subway ride. My New Year’s resolution for 1958: get the Sunday Times with the real estate ads on Saturday night and start searching for a new apartment.
Then my grandmother died. For my father’s sake I went to the funeral, ignored my mother, sat shiva on the first and last days of the week of mourning. Grandma was eighty-three when she died. As long as she lived the candles were lit on Friday evening and the seder was chanted in Hebrew. A red memorial candle – a yahrzeits glass – was lit on the anniversary of Grandpa’s death. I remembered what she said about my doubts about religion – “You don’t want? Don’t do.” It sounded so simple, so clear, all the ‘buts….’ cleared away.
So, what was missing? What did I want? Not advancement. Not a partnership definitely. More change? Variety? Flexibility? As I thought about it on the trains to and from Westchester that week, the question marks began to fade.
I wrote my letter of resignation to LL&F out of a sense of what my grandmother would have called ‘davka’, a devil-may-care attitude that I enjoyed for about five minutes before worries and doubts flooded in. The resignation was accepted “with regret”. That left me on my own, free to choose, but what? I’d saved enough to keep going for a time, but eventually I’d have to find a job.
Reviewing the various possibilities, I decided Boston was not an alternative – the month had been enough. Besides, the Kennedy organization was moving to Washington DC as the election neared. It might hold more options for a lawyer with some bargaining experience.
I wrote to Peggy, asking about the Washington headquarters. An answer came promptly. If I was interested “the Kennedys could always use a bright young lawyer’ she wrote, strangely echoing the connected uncle’s offer.
Feeling adventurous, I decided to travel to the capital to explore my chances.
After a week I decided Washington was a beautiful city, but also a many-sided one. Tourists, politicians, lobbyists, hangers-on were all there for a short time, leaving when the sights had been seen, the vote taken, the committee decision made, or when events back at home demanded a return. As numerous as the Kennedy organization was, it would last only until the vote in November 1960. After that its members would either disappear or morph into government employees. The constant change produced a particular energy in the city. This sense of impermanence suited my own restlessness.
I was happy to find a niche with the Kennedys as part of the team researching possible cabinet members and running mates for JFK. I sublet the place in New York, evidence I was leaving a backdoor open, just in case. The studio apartment the campaign made available was completely furnished right down to the ‘art’ prints on the walls, but lacked any personal note. My new job required me to travel all over the country to talk with civic leaders, union officers and business men, get the lay of the land, to find out what they would expect from a Kennedy presidency. I sent back reports I assumed were read and evaluated by close advisors around the candidate.
I visited all the industrial unions. They had to be reckoned with in any campaign. The Teamsters, under Jimmy Hoffa, didn’t like John F. but really resented “Bobby’s meddling”. Once I saw this “meddling” in action at a hearing of the Senate subcommittee on rackets. Seeing Jimmy Hoffa and Robert Kennedy, – both of them short, pugnacious and unafraid of confrontation – square off against each other was like seeing two roosters fighting for control of the barnyard I admired Kennedy’s style to an extent, but wondered if it would produce anything more than headlines.
Walter Reuther, head of the auto workers’ UAW was different. The union had none of the graft or gangsterism I sensed were part and parcel of the Teamsters. The complete opposite of Hoffa and his up-from-the streets attitude, Walter Reuther impressed me with his international experience, ideas about civil rights and his aims for labor. Robert Kennedy liked Reuther for the VP slot – that was the buzz on the ground in the capital. Time would tell.
After a year of traveling the country, meeting and talking with so many different kinds people, I was glad to return to Washington between trips, where I could relax, listen to others talk in the bars near the apartment, joining in occasionally when I felt like it. Don and Eric, lawyers at the State Department, were usually around when I showed up at the local bar. They liked to hear about my travels. When it was late and strangers had left the bar they shared jokes about the nuts ‘out there’, like the Birchers. Everyone laughed when I sang –
Oh, we’re meetin’ at the courthouse at eight o’clock tonight
You just walk in the door and take the first turn to the right
Be careful when you get there, we hate to be bereft
But we’re taking down the names of everybody turning left
and here Don and Eric would sing along:
Oh, we’re the John Birch Society, the John Birch Society
Here to save our country from a communistic plot
Anyone who forgot the words would have to stand the next round. It was like a club – not friends, just lawyers together. They liked to warn me about getting too involved with all the women working in Washington – secretaries, assistants. But I kept stumm about any dates I had. At thirty-two, I considered myself a bachelor.
Sex was one thing, available whenever needed, dates were another. I was not looking for and actually doubted I would ever find the intimacy I’d once shared with Joanne or the friendship I had with Xenia.
But never with me, Lynda thought sadly.
I wondered sometimes about Don and Eric, always together, no women visible in their lives. Seemed strange but not something that concerned me. My emotions were in a different drawer.
I began to sour on politics when I heard how much influence Joseph Kennedy Sr. was exerting on the campaign. Joe Sr. who could never stand Reuther, a former Socialist, had killed his chances for the Veep slot. The idea of Joe Senior as power broker, the man behind the scenes – a despicable character, a Hitler appeaser, the worst kind of anti-Semite – was depressing and frightening. I considered a return to law.
Ignoring the suggestion of my bar friends to find a position in the State Department (“They could really use someone like you.”), I researched the many law firms clustered around the District of Columbia like bees around a honey pot. International travel interested me. Malcolm, Anderson, Peabody and Steiner, based near the capital, seemed a good possibility. Some of the client names were in Spanish, others were large corporations with connections abroad (or so I hoped).
And so in 1959 I took a job with Malcolm, Anderson, Peabody and Steiner (shortened to MAPS in my mind, hopefully a sign of my future?).
After all, Batista was fleeing Cuba, the Dali Lama was fleeing Communist China, Cary Grant was fleeing a duster plane with evil intent in “North by Northwest” and Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis were fleeing the Mob in “Some Like It Hot” – an eventful year, good for moving on. Thanks to my success as a negotiator with LL&F and the Kennedy campaign (the Washington grapevine was very widespread) I was hired as a junior associate.
I remember that movie. Lynda thought. I was sixteen.
The firm was in Alexandria, Virginia. After a look at the housing situation, I opted for another ‘hospitality suite’ close to the rail line between Alexandria and Washington.
As it happened, I wasn’t so much changing as mixing law and politics – were they ever separate, I wondered? Some of the firm’s biggest clients were in the southern hemisphere. It was impossible to keep the Cuban situation, the missile crisis and the many regime changes in the region from influencing the contract negotiations between importers in the United States and manufacturers, growers and producers in Middle and South America.
It was just after Kennedy’s inauguration when I was asked to take my first trip to Mexico to begin negotiations on oil imports. It almost cured me of my appetite for travel.
Early in my week in Mexico City I made the classic mistake of eating street food. Montezuma’s Revenge kept me flat in bed for several days. Although the local enthusiasm for Kennedy himself was high, my ‘Yanqui’ presence was resented out on the street. The minimal Spanish I’d picked up in the bodegas of New York got a little better as I listened to interpreters during meetings and took advantage of invitations from my hosts to “enjoy the many advantages of our beautiful city” in the evenings. One night on my way home from a bar I was threatened by some delinquents. At six foot one and 170 pounds, I escaped with nothing more than some bruised knuckles. They were in worse shape.
Everyone in Mexico City seemed so enthusiastic about Castro’s rise in Cuba, communism rising! The US was considered the big bully next door. For the first time, I couldn’t escape feeling I was in alien territory. I had to work hard at remaining neutral, not only at the negotiating table. Taken for tours of prehistoric ruins (‘destroyed by Spanish invaders’) or past the Blue House where Trotsky (“a revolutionary hero”) had lived, I nodded politely trying to avoid provocation. Negotiations dragged on. I had to return several times before contracts were signed in 1963. They were overshadowed by the assassination.
The shocked silence, the disbelief in the meeting room as the news first hit remained vivid for me for years after. Even though I couldn’t remember where I was when my grandmother, or later my father, died, I never forgot where I was when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot. Johnson’s swearing in, the terrible photos of Jackie and little John, the endless investigations and conspiracy theories circulating afterward never lessened the impact of that first moment.
Yes. I was in sociology class, my junior year, Lynda thought, we were all crying.
After Mexico, the projects in the next five years melt together in my mind – negotiators with varying expertise in English, over-friendly translators eager to arrange tourist destinations I had no time for, one meeting room much like the other – Guatemala, Venezuela, Chile. Brazil, I had to admit, had been different. I still couldn’t figure out why. Certainly the confusion at the airport in Rio was no better or worse than anywhere else I’d been. The hotel was comfortable, right on the beach. Whatever the reason, Brazil remained a highlight for me.
After years of traveling, approaching my fortieth birthday, I began to wonder about the future. Was I caught in the same kind of treadmill I’d envisioned that Passover night in New Rochelle?
Maybe that was the reason I listened to Eric and agreed to meet with a man from the State Department in a café in downtown Washington.
When I arrived, I was surprised to see one of the junior associates from MAPS sitting alongside a tall stranger. Jim Snyder saw me hesitate, motioned me over.
“Jonathan, hi, nice to see you, this is Adam from the State Department. I think you’re here to see him. He was nice enough to include me in the meeting.”
For a moment I was confused. What was Jim doing here?
“Jonathan, thanks for coming. I’m Adam. I thought it would make things easier if Jim came along.” I nodded, looked at Jim but it was Adam who started to talk.
“I think you’ve heard about the situation in Berlin?” He looked at me. I tried to remember newspaper stories about Berlin. Was this a test of some sort?
“Yes, the Russians built a wall. Kennedy declared himself ‘ein Berliner’, it’s been uh,,,,”
“A center of Cold War tension.” Adam finished. “Yes. It’s vital that our government knows what’s happening in Berlin. Not just the diplomatic moves and threats, but the mood on the streets, what the people think, how the atmosphere changes. It’s hard for the military and the diplomats to move inside the city, without exciting the interest of the Russians and their cohorts, the East Germans. We’ve heard you’re quite good at negotiating, not shy, representing your team even in strange countries?” I wondered where this was going but nodded. Adam looked at Jim to pick up the thread.
“The thing is, Jonathan, there are many corporations interested in investing in Germany’s future, West Germany’s future that is. Some of them are MAPS clients. They’ve asked the firm to reach out to the State Department,” he gestured toward Adam. “for more detailed information about possibilities, dangers, risks involved in building, selling and supporting their products within Germany.” I nodded again.
Adam took over. “We need someone who’s experienced – not an operative who only watches one area, but someone who can almost meld with the population, when necessary, talk to the big companies over there, Siemens etc., speak their language and keep us up to date, eliminate the guessing, the estimating.”
I took a deep breath. “But I don’t speak German.” adding to myself ‘and I don’t want to’.
Jim continued. “We know that, Jonathan. We need your sensitivity, your experience in negotiations. We would like to send you out for a year as a kind of antenna for several of our clients, to see how the atmosphere is.”
“Jonathan, we’ll give you all the information you’ll need – language training, some background in Germany’s history and culture.” Adam added. With an air of pulling a rabbit out of a magic hat, making an offer I couldn’t refuse, Adam continued. “We’ll add to your present salary at MAPS and provide the support of our military offices in Berlin.”
“Berlin! So, a spy in a business suit, right?” The two men chuckled on cue.
“Who exactly would I be working for?” “For us.” Jim and Adam answered simultaneously and smiled.
“I don’t know much about Europe at all and I’m not really eager to go to Germany.”
“Yes, we know your background. “Adam said. “But Germany has changed or is changing. We need someone like you to tell us how much.”
I promised to think it over.
Forty years old – never chosen ‘the road less taken’, never risked everything for a belief, a conviction – for anything actually. Maybe that’s why I even listened to Eric, why I said I’d meet Jim Snyder and Adam. They made it sound so important, “Eyes on” they’d said, helping the firm and the country -maybe. What I liked, what made me even consider it, was the anonymity. Not a salesman, not a spy, not a lawyer and yet all three, like a ball of clay with many colors mixed in but still a ball of clay – a Mr. Nobody, an American in Berlin. The crash course in German history and culture and language – that part, the Germany part, was not appealing but the money was. This job, if you could call it that, was lucky, more or less a carte blanche for a year, lucky for me, for the State Department and for MAPS. And what did I have to lose? It was only a year and I’d have the US Army at my back.
Lynda sat still, thinking, the page still in her hand, so that’s how it started.
A month later, waiting in the lounge for my flight to be announced I wondered again if I was doing the right thing. ‘it’s only a year’ I thought. ‘I can always come back.’
In for a penny, in for a pound she thought and picked up the last pages.
Book 1 For Posterity
I was born in Queens in 1927 and grew up in New Rochelle in Westchester County, New York. My father bought the house in 1933. It was the depths of the Depression, but he was able to get help from the bank.
In 1940 when I turned twelve, I began lessons for my bar mitzvah. My parents insisted on the traditional Jewish ritual for thirteen-year-olds.
I zipped through the Hebrew part of my lessons with the rabbi, filling in the hour by starting arguments about the British White Paper, the Palestinian problem, and the looming threat of the Nazis in Europe. I wasn’t a Zionist or anti-British, but I did listen to the radio, and liked to argue, aggravating the rabbi, whose point of view was narrow. My grandma called this ‘davka’. It was the same at home – always an argument. My parents had to agree with my arguments even against their own opinions.
The one person I could never convince was my grandma. Whatever my arguments about the laws of Judaism as old-fashioned and illogical, my grandmother would look at me with her eyes screwed up, nod her head, lift one shoulder and say “You don’t want? Don’t do.” I had to respect this. She was very old.
When I finally stood at the bimah, the Torah scroll open in front of me, I was perfect, of course. Even though the rabbi was waiting for an argument, giving me dirty looks. After that I mostly stayed away from the synagogue like all the other boys. I didn’t need it. I knew I was a Jew, and, after the bar mitzvah, an adult Jew, a member of the community (I didn’t like that part so much but thought I would wait and see what it meant.)
In high school I had to choose a career goal. Thinking about all the arguments I’d had and how I liked them, I decided I would be a lawyer. It seemed logical. I thought laws would be for everyone, until my history teacher explained how the Nazis in Germany had changed the laws and twisted them so they could kill the Jews and still be legal – after they killed all the Jewish lawyers who could argue against them.
I was more concerned with girls than with laws. I guess I was a normal teenager that way. I had some really hefty arguments with girls in the back seat of the family car. Not that I wanted them to go too far, but a little bit farther than they were supposed to would have been enough for me. I didn’t want a steady girlfriend anyway. I liked to play the field.
Summer of 1945 I graduated in the top third of my high school class. I went for my army physical and found out that my flat feet and weak eyes made me 4F- not eligible for military service. So, I registered at City College. I wanted to go away to school but it wasn’t possible for my parents. I took the subway to college and majored in History but then changed to Political Science, maybe more useful for a lawyer. After graduation I went right into NYU Law School.
She let the pages fall. So – a reluctant Jew, a reluctant lawyer, a reluctant lover – shared with too many, owned by none.
Lynda poured herself a whiskey, went out to the balcony, lifted her glass and, thinking of the grandma who was so wise, said “L’Chayim”.