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I float around Milty Rosen's June-green, tree-lined backyard in upscale Riverdale, looking at the back of a big two-story brick colonial that exudes a near-Scarsdale elan. I'm euphoric, with maybe even a blissful smile on my face. But it's not the house I see that makes me happy. This docs: Thirty years after our eighth-grade day school class of fifteen guys graduated, I get eleven of them to come back for a reunion. And all of themit's amazing!alive, well, recognizable, brimming with energy and good cheer. Miraculous, no? if you consider what can happen to ten or fifteen people in thirty years: moves, migrations, failure, air disasters, illness, accidents, depressions, disabilities, evenbite your tongue, like my mother saysdeath.
Our class, in our small, all boys' private Jewish school in Brooklyn, had been together for eight years, since first grade, and so we had a familiarity that could outlast friendship. Perhaps we were even more intimately bound than we dared to admit. Perhaps that is why I dreamt of the guys in my class, often in a reunion setting, for years before I decided to make the attempt to realize the dream.
But this wasn't the first. Our fifteenth anniversary reunion, when most of us were twenty-eight or -nine, was held in a small meeting room of the old Roosevelt Hotel in New York. Without prompting, as if it were a mythic rite we'd rehearsed, every time a fellow came through the door, a wide grin on his face, he called all his classmates by first and last name, as if we'd separated only for summer vacation. The last to enter got around of applause when he finished his recitation. We all embraced and kissed, and in our effusive backslapping and handshakes and an occasional factitious touch of gaiety, all the old rivalries, jealousies and enmities seemed to wash away. But only for a little while. For as we sat down at the four tables for the buffet supper, like magnets clicking the guys grouped as in the old days: class leaders and clique pals at one table, the peripherals and hangers-on at the other three.
This time, for our thirtieth, to avoid that hierarchical taxis, clever Milty Rosenefficiency engineer by professionarranged one large oval of chairs on the lawn, which were gradually filling up.
Although I was happy to see everyone, the guy I wanted to see most of all was my old friend Guido. He had missed the first reunionthe only one who hadn't attendedbecause he was on assignment in Europe. Also, as I learned later, he was having personal problems at the time and didn't want to face his old classmates just then.
One way or another Guido always stood out. Among boys called Sid, Barry, David, Isaac, Herbie, Irving, Larry, Morty, Milty, Charlie (that's me), Guido was an anomaly. Among family names like Levy, Oxenfeld, Baumgarten, Ginzburg, Horodensky, Lifschitz, Cohen, Rosen, and Perlmutter (me again), having a classmate with the improbable name of Veneziano-Tedesco sounded like a put-on. How could an Italian be a Jew? we thought. You were either Italian or Jewish. You either listened to the Yiddish radio or the Italian. (Our downstairs neighbor, I was sure, had an Italian radio.) In our school we were taught to love our neighbors. But strangers? So, naturally, we picked on Guido. First, because he was an intruder. He came into our class in the September of our fourth grade and spoiled the homogeneity of our happy family of students who had been at one another's throats for the past three years. Second, because of his goyish name. Third, because he spoke English with an accent. Fourth, because he was slightly cross-eyed. Fifth, because we had a tradition of picking on foreigners who came from enemy countries.
Milty Rosen to Barry "Ox" Oxenfeld, standing near the buffet table, Isaac Baumgarten listening:
"One day I'm eating supper with my wife and several guests. I'm at the head of the table. My friend sits to my right, my wife to my left. I feel my wife rubbing her long leg against mine under the table. So, laughing, to pull her leg so to speak, I whisper to her: `It's not my leg.' She laughs too and says: `How do you know?' She's got me on that one. `I can see,' I lie. Meanwhile, my friend whose leg is the real object of the intended rubbing, smiles. Why is he smiling? Because the queer thinks it's me who's rubbing his leg."
At least we didn't beat Guido up like we did Manfred and Siegfried Frankfurter, survivors, twins (so they claimed), born during the war and hidden as babies in occupied Poland by their fleeing German-Jewish parents. They had lived in Europe, and then, some years after the war, came to America with hardly a word of English. With names like Manfred and Siegfried we thought of them as Germans, not Jews. And the Frankfurter didn't help them survive either, at least not with our class. So we vented our anger against Germany by beating them up. "Yidn, yidn," they pointed to themselves as we pummeled them and explained, Not to fear, we weren't smacking them because they were Jews, God forbid, but because they were Germans. How can anyone who loves frankfurters be anti-Semitic? we told them. The pogroms were led by twins Isaac and David Baumgarten, who resented this intrusion on their uniqueness. If Manfred and Siegfried were indeed twins, they were circus material. Manfred was a short Frankfurter, shifty-eyed, thin-lipped, sly, his oblong head too big for his body, while brother Siegfried was tall, gangly, moronic looking, with big dopey bent ears and blubber lips. He looked about two years older. They were no more twins, those liars, than I was. Another reason to pick on them. To top it off, these Germans befouled the air of our classroom daily with their noiseless effluvia. With a battle cry of "Nazi gas!" Isaac or David ran to open the windows, and even when one of our own native sons let one fly, Baumgarten ran windowward with an accusing glance, holding his nose as he passed the Germans on his way to let in fresh American air. Still another reason to whack 'em.
The twins manqué didn't last too long. Their parents complained to our principal, Rabbi Gordin, that the students here were antisemitn. They didn't survive hiding, forests and death camps, and the hatred of Europe to be beaten up here, in a Jewish school, by Jewish children.
Barry Oxenfeld, Herbie Ginzberg listening:
"Now that's the sort of kinky story one would expect from Herbie Ginzberg, not Milty Rosen. Herbie, who after twenty-five years of driving still has a hang-up about going over the Washington Bridge because he's afraid it will fall down. So to get from Rye to Teaneck where he has his fresh milk run, for which any normal human being would take the GW, Herbie goes down the West Side Highway to the Lincoln Tunnelthat won't collapse on him in his mad worldand then takes the Jersey Turnpike up to Teaneck, by which time all his milk is sour."
No wonder the ground was set for unwelcome when the Italian showed up in the fourth grade.
I remember how we came up to Guido on his first day in school, ready for fun.
"Teacher says you're Italian," Morty Cohen, class president, began.
"Yes." Guido looked us straight in the eyewith his squint he could look two of us in the eyenothing shy or diffident about him. Even then he was taller than the rest of us.
"Last year two Germans came. We got rid of them quick." said Sid Levy.
"So?" he said.
"So speak Dago," said Milty Rosen with a rictus grin.
"Yeah, you know," said Larry Lifschitz, "Italian. Mafia talka!"
Guido rattled off a few sentences. And he smiled.
"Say fungoo," said Irv Horodensky.
"Fungoo," said Guido, with Italian music. Probably the only kid in school who could say it with conviction.
"What's it mean? Yeah, what's it mean?" said David and Isaac Baumgarten.
"I don't know."
We rolled on the sidewalk with laughter. It was Sicilian slang and this North Italian with jacket and tie really didn't know what it meant.
"He's a Dago and don't know fungoo?" Barry Oxenfeld cackled.
"Can you say, Siamo idioti?" Guido said.
"Sure," we said. "That's easy. Siamoidioti. And we began to chant: "Siamoidioti, Siamoidioti, Siamoidioti. See?"
And Guido smiled again.
We also called him Mafia, Macaroni and Spaghetti, Mussolini and pastafazool. We left him out of our games. We ate his lunch. We played saluggihe didn't even know what that meant! Some Italian!with his hat. But after a few months we grew tired of it. Calm Guido didn't respond. The tall smug bastard. But even then we didn't dare say anything about his slight squint. So we found all kinds of synonyms for his queer-duck schizoid nationality, with Macaroni a close second to Spaghet.
Morty Cohen to Isaac Baumgarten:
"Giovanni Battista Vico, a late seventeenth-century Italian historian and philosopher, believed that man's first language was in song, in imitation of birds, and that this language was in harmony with creation. Perhaps this is why the Torah is chanted, as a continuation of man's first language."
Then I saw a shiny red MG pull into the driveway and out stepped Guido, a camera around his neck.
I remembered him as a tall surly boy with a long aristocratic face, high forehead and straight black hair. Even at eleven or twelve he looked noble. Guido was always different. We took (actually, were given; better yet, had foisted upon us) piano lessonsfor a year or twoand cut practice to play ball. He studied cello and stuck with it. We were building model airplaneshe was developing rolls of film. We were Brooklyn born. He, born in Venice, had the patina of Europe. We knew of war and hardship secondhand. He and his family were hidden by kindly Italian villagers during the German occupation, escaping roundup a number of times. Our fathers were small tradesmen or worked for others. His father was a physician, as were his grandfather and great-grandfather. We were Cohens, Rosens, Perlmutters. He was Veneziano-Tedesco.
The family's roots in Venice had tendrils four hundred years long. They had emigrated from Germany, part of the rather large wave of German Jews who went to northern Italy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. In fact, to this day one of the several ornately handsome, centuries-old synagogues in Venice is the German, or Ashkenazic, synagogue, known as the Scuola Tedesca. And hence the Tedescothe Italian word for Germanpart of his musically-rhythmic, hyphenated name.
The family left Venice because Dr. Abramo Veneziano-Tedesco had been awarded a two-year research fellowship at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. But two became four, and the four, eight. Then came a turning point in their longish temporary hegira. Guido's father suddenly died of a heart attack when we were seniors in high school. His mother, lost and lonely now, wanted to go back home. She had never liked New York or the cultural niveau of the Brooklyn Jewish ladies, and she wanted to be near her daughter (older than Guido, and married, she had returned on her own) and two grandchildren in Milan. Guido was mature enough to take care of himself, she felt. Still, she decided to wait until Guido graduated college and got a job.
Although Guido's parents had urged him to continue the family tradition of medicinehis grandfather had been made a count by King Victor Emmanuel III for his contributions to medicine in ItalyGuido rebelled. He was an A student, but he didn't want to spend twelve years studying and slaving. He was drawn to photography. He loved to see the image of a picture he'd taken that same day slowly materializing before his eyes. A face coming up in developer fascinated him. In his darkroom oncewe were in Columbia thenGuido told me: "Photography is a metaphor for me. Life is elusive. With a picture you capture reality forever."
The old cliché "pretty as a picture" is apropos here. As handsome as Guido was in high school, he got better looking in college. And the older he got, the better looking he became. He could have been a model in those supergoyish designer label ads you see nowadays, where unsmiling Nazi types with Germanic straight hair model sweaters, jackets and suits, and horses are never far away. But Guido's deep eyes, perhaps rounder than a WASP's, put off any definitive classification as a goy. At our reunion he looked distinguished. Like an ambassador. Whereas some of us were balding or had the beginnings of grey hairOx Oxenfeld was all white, at forty-three!Guido's full head of hair was black. He was easily the most handsome man in the group. No wrinkles around the eyes, no crevices in the skin. He looked thirty. The old energy, that restless buzzing, like telegraph wires humming, radiated out of him. He never knew what it meant to be tired or sleepy. Even the slight squint in his eye was more modified. The guy I'd known during childhood and adolescence as a slightly conceited chap seemed to have mellowed. But the patrician air was still there.
Larry Lifschitz to Charlie Perlmutter, spearing a couple of Casaba melon slices, one of which Charlie nabs:
"I wonder if melons and pumpkins and squash are in the same family."
"Because of the seeds?"
"They must be related. I remember my parents saying that in Russia when a melon was bad they called it a squash."
"Then cars and citrus fruits must be in the same family, because when a car is bad they call it a lemon."
Guido was six-foot-one but edged it up to six-two. Indeed, he looked taller because he held himself erect, and his old-roots Venetian face gave him an elegance, an elan which his demeanor did everything to support and encourage. He considered himself an aristocrat, of course; he deigned to speak to everyone, but sooner or later he let you feel his own sense of worth. When he wanted to send you this message he modulated his now unaccented English to one slightly hued with an Italian lilt. The look in his eye alone told you he pronounced his family name with a capital V.
I envied Guido on several counts. I envied his entire insouciance toward life. The ease with which he related to girls, how quickly he made them laugh. He regaled them with Italian phrases and proverbs. Often a couple of cara mias would do the trick. He told them, Other people hear language, I see it. Verbs have colors and nouns have shape. Later, when I studied psychology, I learned the technical term for this phenomenon: synesthesia. He said he had once seen a Persian column of numbers, called the magic square, that defied mathematical logic: the numbers added up differently if you went from the top down or the bottom up. But he couldn't remember it; he had it at home somewhere. And numbers, he said, reminded him of music. Each was a different note. And the girls, especially those with an intellectual or creative bent, would eat this up. They'd never heard things like that before. Like his zany invention, the flashdark, the daytime equivalent of the flashlight. He wanted to invent something that in bright sunlight would give off a beam of darkness.
Out on a double date once, I heard him tell a girl that as a child he had seen in the Milan Zoo the original panther from Kafka's "A Hunger Artist." Or an off-the-wall remark like: "I've been listening to music all my life and absorbing all those notes. That's why I'm afraid of surgery. They open me up and the o.r. will be flooded by 104 Haydn symphonies. They won't be able to take it. Like an excess of light."
For another guy, a slight squint might have been an impediment. But it didn't make Guido look disabled, dopey, or pathetic. On the contrary, he could watch two girls at the same time.
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