It’s a quarter past five at Louise’s Diner, and Esther Rosenbaum has fifteen minutes until the early-bird special expires. I wait in a booth, anxiously scanning the door for her, checking my cell phone every few minutes for a message from hers until I remember that she doesn’t have one. “I don’t even own a slide projector,” she’d trilled over her rotary.
With three minutes to spare, she arrives, an understated—though is anything with Esther ever truly understated?—95-year-old swirl of beige polyester pants, a gray cardigan (“I love knitting”), and tan orthopedic loafers. Heads swivel as she enters on her walker, its silver legs blinged-out with friction-reducing split tennis balls–not the predictable green ones, of course, but International Orange.
“I could’ve sworn this place was on 83rd,” she says by way of apology for her tardiness.
My tape recorder is acting up, of course, as if it, too, is nervous in her presence. I tell her, and she quips, “Well, my hearing aid battery is on the fritz. So we’re even.”
I ask loudly about her upcoming projects.
“I’ve been so busy I practically haven’t had time to use my asthma inhaler,” she continues. A slew of holiday cards to write, Thursday night canasta with her “girls,” a few appointments with her hip specialist: To be Esther in 2009 is, clearly, to be not only in the eye of the storm, but to be the storm itself, and not your average thunder-and-lightning affair, but a typhoon, a tsunami, an “I-don’t-think-we’re-in-Kansas-anymore” twister.
Her wild-widow days, well documented in the society pages of the Cherry Hill Jewish Community Voice, are far behind her, she assures me. “I rarely go out on Saturday nights these days,” she says. “I like to stay in and do my large-print Sudoku, call up my grandchildren, write letters to the editor. I’m a huge—what do they call it now?—a huge dork.”
I, like everyone else not currently hiding out in the Pakistani mountains, have heard rumors of Esther’s rendezvous with various eligible seniors from West End Synagogue. “I’m happy to talk about my public life—I understand that’s part of the game—but I was raised by my bubbe not to kiss-and-tell,” she demurs. Instead, either out of misdirection or because she’s lost her train of thought, she tells me three separate times about her “Varga-girl-gorgeous” granddaughter’s recent promotion at “a business outfit in New Jersey,” though I have offhandedly already mentioned that I’m happily married, knowing of Esther’s reputation for romantic maneuvers of all kinds. When I press for details about her own personal entanglements, E.R. finally allows, “I can tell you I sat on a Riverside Park bench last week with a younger man, in his eighties.” But, the senior-cougar-in-training adds coyly, “I can’t recall his name.”
It’s not hard to figure out what this mystery admirer saw in Esther. One glimpse of The Hair—the supernova-white nimbus haloing her head about which enough ink has already been spilled—is enough to haunt any man’s dreams. Then your gaze drifts down to the unfocussed eyes, bespeaking a wisdom equal to her years, the dappled hands, the skin as full of character as an old dollar bill, and you’re not quite the same person you were a minute before.
Esther, for her part, seems patently unaware of her physical allure, and in spite of her ignorance—or perhaps because of it—her grace reveals itself in microscopic, nuanced gestures: the casual wiping away of crumbs at the corner of her unadorned lips, the absentminded twirling of her bifocals’ turquoise nylon cord, her fetching habit of nodding off at regular intervals.
I’ve gotten so lost in pensive appreciation that I don’t notice Esther turning the tables and scrutinizing me. “You would be so much more handsome if you got a haircut and put on a nice sports coat and slacks,” she says. I think I actually blush, and stutter something about taking care of it next week. This is the effect Esther Rosenbaum has on grown men: An backhanded compliment reduces them to mumbling adolescents.
Want strong opinions on art? Just ask Esther, who’s unabashed about her retro sensibilities. She grew up on black and white movies, with a special fondness for the silent era. “Much classier than the trash they churn out now,” she says, noting that she rarely makes it to “the pictures” today. “And I only watch PBS,” she adds, because it’s all she likes, and also she is never sure exactly how to change channels. As for music, she has a vintage ‘50s phonograph and an enviable collection of big band LPs—and she was into it well before Swingers, which she’s never heard of.
After she asks the waiter to wrap up her half-eaten chicken salad (no, she’s not attempting to become one of those brittle, spindly spinsters wasting away on the cover of AARP—she’s just “trying to reduce” these days), she brings out a sunshine-yellow seven-day pill box. “Is it Tuesday?” she muses. It’s Friday, in fact, but for these quotidian concerns that most of us must attend to, E-Rose has an entourage—a daily nurse, a neighbor who checks in on her most nights, her son Harold the podiatrist in Cleveland.
When the check arrives, she slips me a hard candy from the bottom of her purse and a $5 bill. I tell her the meal is on me, but she tells me it’s not for her “chicken sandwich”—it’s a little something for my birthday, which was four months ago.
“Put it in a savings account,” she advises, with the sagacity of a woman who raised four children during the Great Depression. “And don’t spend it all in one place.” It’s hard to tell whether she means this to be an ironic comment on the economy and the proverb itself or a serious piece of advice. This is truly a woman of unmeasured mystery.
Then she recounts her granddaughter’s promotion, shows me a picture, and asks, with a hopeful, yet forceful, lilt in her voice, “Are you going with anyone?”
That’s “The Rose” for you–mischievous and, now, once again, and quite suddenly, lovely in her slumber.
Teddy Wayne is the author of the novel “Kapitoil,” available from Harper Perennial.