Photo: David Vines
My Industrious Next-door Neighbor
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Michael Vines
As I climbed the stairs to my second-floor walk-up on the not-yet-gentrified Upper West Side after an exhausting night on my feet, I often heard the click click clack of a manual typewriter coming from the apartment of my septuagenarian next-door neighbor. Two in the morning, and she was pounding away. I tried to feel inspired by her industry, but what I felt most was chastened.
I hadn’t come to New York City to be a waiter; my ambitions were far loftier than that. I was one of the horde of kids fresh out of college who, along with the mob of misfits and dropouts, storm the city and take on menial jobs while pursuing a dream. In my case, I came for grad school, stuck around and put my advanced degree to work waiting tables. I might not have been ready to be a writer, but I was ready to work at it. In the meantime, I did what I could to keep a roof over my head, and that entailed, for me at least, a job working nights so I could spend my more productive daytime hours trying to develop my craft.
I’d been living alone in my small studio for about three years but, typical of New York apartment dwellers, I knew next to nothing about my nearest neighbor, Mrs. Gloeckner, other than that she was an obviously energetic writer who kept late hours and rarely left the building. A shabbily dressed, middle-aged woman—her daughter, I assumed—with whom I exchanged pleasantries when I saw her, would come by now and then carrying packages, sometimes from the grocery store, sometimes from Macy’s, or Laytner’s, a neighborhood housewares store on Broadway. It comforted me to know that the elderly woman wasn’t all alone in the world. Someone was in touch and looking in on her.
Occasionally as I bounded down the stairs on my way out, Mrs. Gloeckner would crack open her door and call to me, “Mr. Keller, excuse me. But would you mind putting these in the mail for me?”
“Of course,” I’d say in my friendly, open, Midwestern manner. She’d hand me her envelopes and usually, before I could ask her about her writing, she’d thank me and close the door. One time I was able to force in a few words, as if they were a foot shoved against the doorjamb to block her from closing it.
“I hear you typing away late at night. I’m trying to write, too. What kind of work do you do?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “Does it disturb you?”
“Not at all. I find it inspiring.”
“Well, I’m glad then. Good luck.”
She smiled and closed the door. As I said, it wasn’t exactly true that I found her late-night labors inspiring. But I could hardly have told her that they mainly filled me with self-doubt, as if I were nothing but a wannabe who didn’t have the commitment, dedication, perseverance, or whatever combination of admirable, heroic traits were required to do the hard, lonely work of actually writing, the way she did. Despite the fact that I was about fifty years younger than she and should have had ten times the energy and drive, I was getting nowhere, producing nothing. I feared I was destined to become an artist manqué, never living up to the potential I was sure I had.
The restaurant I worked at, Tavern on the Green, did its best to make a spectacle of itself and succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. Its motto might well have been “Everything to Excess”: crystal chandeliers dropping from a ceiling decorated like the top of a wedding cake, the largest and most ornate of them supposedly made for an Indian Maharajah. There were Tiffany stained glass lamp shades, etched mirrors, Christmas lights glowing all year round, and men in tuxedos hovering around a clientele—primarily tourists and special-occasion celebrants—who had never seen anything like this outside of depression-era movies.
My official title was captain, a glorified waiter whose primary responsibility was to take orders for overpriced food and push the most expensive wines on their exhaustive list. My team, consisting of two waiters in black pants and white waistcoats and a busboy wearing a black one, did most of the running around and heavy lifting, while I stayed on the floor, resplendent in my tuxedo and trying to be charmingly obsequious, something that didn’t come naturally to me.
I owned two tuxes, made in Poland—just like my grandparents and my mom—fifty bucks each. I had them dry cleaned and my pleated tuxedo shirts laundered and starched at Goffstein’s, a couple whose name was spelled out in gold leaf letters on their Columbus Avenue storefront window.
Irv Goffstein, a tailor by trade, did alterations, and his wife Sophie took charge of the cleaning. I enjoyed kibitzing with them and tossing around the dwindling number of Yiddish words and phrases I could still remember from my childhood in an immigrant family that spoke the language with varying degrees of fluency and frequency.
The Goffsteins always got a kick out of me and sort of took me under their wing. Mr. Goffstein who, like my tuxedo and family, came from Poland, was happy to restitch the lining of my jacket and make minor alterations for me at no charge. We were landsmen, after all. Maybe even long lost distant relatives. My family was from a shtetl called Sokolova. Goffstein was from Warsaw, but he’d heard of it. When I said the name, he shook his head and muttered something I couldn’t understand. Probably about how ill-fated the place was. Of course, so was Warsaw. So was pretty much all of Europe for Jews.
Mrs. Goffstein played matchmaker, trying to fix me up with one of her nieces. She showed me her picture and asked, “Martin, is this not a sheyne meydele?”
I had to agree that she was quite pretty. But the niece had some sort of job on Wall Street—which Mrs. Goffstein considered a strong selling point—and my work made it hard to socialize with women who didn’t have a similarly nocturnal lifestyle. Although there was truth in that, there was a deeper reason for my reluctance. Given my low station in life, I didn’t feel I had much to offer a woman interested in a serious relationship, least of all one who worked on Wall Street. I’d have to put that off until I had proven, to myself as much as anyone else, that I was on my way to a successful career. Until I was confident that I could be a provider. Maybe until I had at least written, if not published, my first novel.
“Go, have a meeting, a cup coffee. What could it hurt?”
Mr. Goffstein didn’t approve of his wife’s hitting me up me like that. “Sophie, please, leave the boy.”
“A cup coffee. You never know.”
“When it’s time, he’ll find. We don’t have to worry from Martin.” He spoke with the exact same Yiddish accent as my grandparents.
Maybe it was the influence of the Goffsteins, but for some reason I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to attend Rosh Hashanah services, something I hadn’t done in years. This was not as easy as it sounds. You didn’t just walk into a shul and take a seat; you had to buy a ticket. And demand being what it is in a city with a Jewish population exceeded in all the world only by Tel Aviv, supplies were limited and prices high. Even if I could have afforded it, I’d have had to purchase a ticket well in advance. I mentioned my predicament to Mr. Goffstein and he told me I would be welcome at their synagogue, located right there on the Upper West Side. He’d make sure I got in as his guest.
“That’s great,” I said, and wanted to say, “Thank you” in Yiddish but realized, for the first time in my life, that the words for this common courtesy were not in my vocabulary. I could have cursed him in Yiddish from here to Warsaw and back if I’d wanted to, but was unable to express those simple words of gratitude. It was a sobering realization.
When you wake up in the morning, you never know that it will be a day you’ll remember as long as you live. You never even think about it. It just comes out of nowhere and changes your life forever.
That Rosh Hashanah was one of those days. I got up earlier than usual, put on my suit and a tie, and headed down the stairs of my brownstone. Before I reached the bottom I heard Mrs. Gloeckner call out to me, “Oh, Mr. Keller.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Gloeckner.”
She was surprised to see me heading out at that hour and had never seen me in a suit other than my tuxedo. “Early start today, I see. And so dressed up. Where are you going?”
“It’s Rosh Hashanah. I’m going to synagogue.”
“Really? I didn’t know you were Jewish.”
“Yes. I am.”
“Rosh Hashanah, is it?”
“That’s right. The Jewish new year.”
“How nice. Would you mind mailing these for me on your way?”
“Of course, I’d be glad to.”
I climbed back up the steps and took her envelopes, including the usual 9” x 12” manila mailer, no doubt containing her latest article, or a précis, or a chapter of a book.
“Thank you so much,” she said. As I headed back down the stairs, she called out to me once more. “You look very nice.”
I dropped her envelopes into the mailbox on the corner and walked the half dozen blocks to Mr. Goffstein’s shul, which was located in the west nineties in a magnificent limestone building with decorative ionic columns. The sanctuary, redolent of the Orthodox congregation my grandparents briefly attended when I was a kid, was instantly familiar to me: the babble of old Jewish men davening in Hebrew; their muddled invocations randomly punctuated by sudden crescendos as they swayed to their own rhythms; the mechitza separating them from the women. Whether in the relaxed atmosphere of the Midwest, the congested tumult of New York City, or the vast variety of climes and cultures where they had sunk their roots on every continent in the world, Jews were Jews.
Despite its familiarity, I was also struck by how alien it was: the strange, guttural tongue; the odd, stilted letters that were going in the wrong direction on the page; the skullcaps covering every man’s head; the prayer shawls draped over their shoulders; the ancient scrolls closeted mysteriously behind a curtain, then suddenly revealed to a standing, clamorous ovation. How odd, how foreign, it all seemed. Yet how comfortable and at home I felt.
I had no patience for the service, however, and soon had had enough. I made sure to make eye contact with Mr. Goffstein, just so he’d know I was there, and then left the synagogue early.
When I got back to my apartment, I was surprised to find waiting for me at my door a bottle of wine wrapped in a blue Mylar gift bag tied at the top with a white ribbon. I lifted it and read the attached handwritten card. It said simply, Happy New Year. Helene Gloeckner.
What a kind gesture! And she had chosen to wrap her gift in blue and white, the traditional Jewish colors woven into the tallis that I, along with the rest of the men praying at the synagogue that morning, had worn over our shoulders. The same colors that adorn the Israeli flag, its blue stripes meant to symbolize the ones in the tallis. Mrs. Gloeckner had given this some thought. Of course, it wasn’t customary to give and receive gifts on Rosh Hashanah, but how was she to know? She was probably thinking, It’s the New Year! Let’s ring it in with a bottle of wine. I didn’t wait a moment to knock on her door and thank her—in English, a language in which I knew numerous words that could express my gratitude.
“Who is it?” she inquired from behind her locked door.
“It’s me, Martin. Your neighbor.”
The door creaked open slowly, and she looked up at me from the other side.
“Thank you so much for this, Mrs. Gloeckner,” I said, holding up the bottle of wine in my hand. “It’s very thoughtful of you. Unnecessary, really, but very thoughtful. Thank you.”
“Well, for your new year. It’s my pleasure.”
“It’s very kind. Thanks again.”
“You’re welcome. Happy new year.”
“And happy new year to you, too,” I said, even though it wasn’t a holiday for her.
I turned, unlocked my door, which was just inches away from hers, and began to enter my apartment when Mrs. Gloeckner added, quite matter-of-factly, “You know, there never was a Holocaust.”
“Excuse me?” I didn’t need to hear again what she had said. It registered loud and clear the first time. So my question wasn’t really a question, but a stalling tactic to give me time to process the unimaginable combination of words that had just passed her lips.
“There never was a Holocaust,” she repeated in a pleasant, casual tone. “It’s a hoax.”
“What? Are you serious?” I asked automatically, without thinking. Of course she was serious. Who would joke about such a thing?
“Oh, yes. Quite.”
“You know there’s tons of evidence documenting what the Nazis did to the Jews. They kept very precise records. There are still survivors from the death camps. Eyewitnesses.”
She shook her head, patiently, pitying my ignorance and naiveté. “There has never been a single so-called death camp victim who has given eyewitness testimony that they were gassed.”
I couldn’t process this quickly enough to respond. I lurched forward slightly, my body moving ahead of my ability to reason and articulate my thoughts. “Of course not. They were gassed! They’re dead. That just makes no sense. You have got to be kidding me.”
“Wait one moment.”
She scurried back into her apartment and promptly returned with a stack of pamphlets. She took the top one and held it up to me. On the front was a grainy old black-and-white photo of a front-end loader, its bucket filled with emaciated bodies it had picked up, like so much dirt, from an even larger pile of naked corpses tangled up together, still on the ground. She pointed to the caption.
“Look. See? ‘Treblinka,’” she read, “‘alleged site of a Nazi death camp, was actually stricken by a virulent typhoid epidemic in 1943 which killed many thousands of people.’ See?”
“What’s this supposed to prove? Somebody writes a caption, and that’s all it takes to ignore clear evidence of genocide?”
“This is history, Mr. Keller. True history.”
“The bodies are naked. Why are they naked? Why are they lying outside in a heap like that on the ground? Why are they shoveled up by earth-moving equipment? If these people had been sick, why weren’t they clothed and cared for?”
“They had to be cremated to stop the spread of the disease. It was the right thing to do. To save others. Jews were saved at Treblinka, not murdered. And at all your other so-called ‘death camps’.”
My death camps? My so-called death camps? I was outraged.
“Hold on a minute. Hold on. Are you trying to tell me these were acts of altruism? Kill the Jews in order to save them?”
“Here, you take these,” she said, handing her pamphlets to me. “Read them. You’ll see.”
It was a reflex action that allowed me to hold on to the pamphlets she had placed in my hand. There’s no other way to explain why I didn’t let them fall to the floor or throw them in her face. A similar type of unconscious motor response must have been at work to account for my turning from her and walking into my apartment, pamphlets and bottle of wine still in hand.
I set the wine on the counter that separated the dollhouse-sized kitchen from the main living area of my studio apartment, walked the few steps to my sofa, and dropped into it like a bomb still waiting to detonate.
What just happened? I asked myself.
It seemed too farfetched, too surreal to be true. But there in my hand were the very real pamphlets, printed in dull black and white on cheap paper with a matte finish, which I still hadn’t let go of.
I glanced down at the one on top with the photo of “Treblinka, alleged site of a Nazi death camp.” I had taken a class called Literature of the Holocaust in college and knew that there had indeed been a typhoid epidemic at Treblinka. But its virulence was a consequence, not a cause, of the mass deaths that occurred there, where inmates who hadn’t been gassed yet were forced into slave labor, compelled to fling the bodies of their asphyxiated brethren onto flaming pyres, and were starved, beaten, and herded into claustrophobic, pathogenic pens where they languished until meeting their own inevitable fates. There was no question about these facts, but whoever had written that caption had ignored them, or mangled them, like the bodies themselves, into an outright lie.
This technique was similarly employed in the other pamphlets I scanned, all equally filled with lies, distortions, and self-contradictions. The Nazis never intended to exterminate the Jews, they said. If they had, they were so efficient, they would have killed them all. A half million wouldn’t have survived to move after the war to New York City, the Jewish Sodom and Gomorrah. There had been no gas chambers, only crematoria to dispose of the dead victims of Allied bombings and numerous other Anglo-American atrocities. And in the same article that claimed there had been no gas chambers, there was the contradictory assertion that the gas chambers couldn’t produce enough carbon dioxide to be lethal. The fiction of the Nazi death camps was concocted in order to justify and realize the Zionist dream of a homeland in Israel for “the Talmudists,” where they would all get rich collecting reparations from a German people made to feel guilty by the myths and exaggerations of the “Jew-owned” media. Auschwitz was conflated with Dresden. Hitler was a man of peace. The German people were the real victims, forced into war by the controlling financial interests of International Jewry. And on and on.
Who were the people who published these vile tracts? I wondered. Who was responsible for propagating such obvious nonsense—so pernicious, so dangerous, despite being so easily debunked? I found the answer on the back page of each pamphlet, where the publisher had printed its name and address: The Historical Revisionist Society, PO Box 1889, Mission Viejo, California.
It was then that everything fell into place. The Historical Revisionist Society in Mission Viejo, California. I had seen that address before—on the envelopes that I had so obligingly mailed for Mrs. Gloeckner. As sick as I felt reading this garbage, it was nothing compared to how I felt once I realized that she was among the fabricators who were writing these lies, inventing these stories, distorting the facts, “revising” history to justify their hatred of Jews. And not only to justify it, but also to awaken its latency in others and spread it throughout the land. This is what my industrious next-door neighbor had been writing all those nights when I felt so much admiration for her. This is what had come of the dedication and discipline that I had been so inspired and chastened by. The caption beneath the Treblinka photo could well have been written by her. And I was her accomplice, albeit an unwitting one. I had been posting her hate mail for her. I had helped disseminate it to the world.
I don’t know how long I sat there flipping through those pamphlets. To do so even for a minute, I had to be in a state of shock. When I finally came out of it, I bolted off my sofa, grabbed the bottle of wine, stormed out my apartment, and pounded on Mrs. Gloeckner’s door. This time she didn’t inquire who it was before opening it. She was expecting me.
“Take these,” I said as I thrust her pamphlets at her, restraining myself from also thrusting my fist. “Take your damn wine, and don’t you ever, ever, ask me to mail anything for you again!”
“You don’t dare to see the truth, do you?”
“Truth? There’s nothing in those things but lies. And they’re not even consistent lies. Any fool can see through them.”
“But the lies of the Zionists? Those you believe?”
She spoke calmly, with a detached equanimity that infuriated me. The more composed she remained, the more agitated I got.
“Oh, please. Only a complete antisemite could believe even one word of this crap. It’s as transparently false and fabricated as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion!”
“Surely you know the Jews control the banks, the financial markets, the media. That’s how they perpetuate this myth of the six million. You people will never understand,” she said, a touch of condescension seeping into her voice.
“We understand, all right.”
“You’ll never understand Hitler. He didn’t hate the Jews. He loved the German people. He took a great nation brought to its knees by Versailles and gave it dignity and respect, and brought it back to its rightful place in the world.”
“Yes, a country so good, there are now two of them.”
“He built roads,” she went on admiringly, as if introducing a local councilman at the Rotary Club. “He gave people jobs, revived the economy, made Germany a world power. You people try to make him into some sort of a monster!”
“Would you please stop with the ‘you people’? Hitler committed genocide. And he lost the war. He was so busy killing Jews, he lost the war he’d started. How was that for the German people?”
She didn’t have an answer. Or more likely, she just saw me as a hopeless case not worth her effort.
“Don’t give me anything to mail for you. I don’t want to see you or speak to you ever again. Just stay out of my way.”
“I hope that’s not a threat, Mr. Keller.”
“Take it however you want.”
I was done—too tense and sick to my stomach to go on. I had to get away from this woman. I walked back into my apartment and double-locked the door behind me.
Once I had calmed down and looked back on my unexpectedly unforgettable day, I wasn’t surprised that Mrs. Gloeckner hadn’t taken me to be a Jew. My facial features and coloring are such that people of many nationalities have mistaken me for one of their own. I don’t bear the slightest resemblance to what her idea of a Jew must have looked like, most likely informed by Der Stürmer, with Julius Streicher’s caricatures of Jews with enormous hooked noses, vermin-infested beards, warts, rotten teeth, and lecherous, greedy leers. I didn’t have lice, nor were there rats crawling in and out of my apartment. I had never been known to drink the blood of Christian children or use it to make matzo on Passover. I was not sneaky or manipulative, sly or conniving, and not even rich; just an open, friendly, fresh-faced Midwesterner struggling to get by. How could she have imagined that this clean, well-groomed young man with the pleasant mien and affable disposition was a Jew?
What’s more, Keller is a common German name, so she might have assumed I was of German descent. But the name had migrated throughout the rest of Europe and even found its way into the Jewish population of Poland.
My encounter with Mrs. Gloeckner wasn’t my first brush with anti-Semitism. But the couple of incidents I’d experienced as a kid were isolated, anomalies I thought I’d probably never experience again. This was America and I was, first and foremost, an American. So ingrained in me from my earliest days was the communal experience of watching television together as a nation; so steeped was I in its indigenous blues, rock, and soul music, its movies, its idioms, its literature, its cheeseburgers, its fries, its Cokes; so stimulated by its freedom, its creativity, its optimism, its possibilities; so enraptured by its baseball, particularly the Cardinals, for whom, as an adolescent, I felt the closest thing I have ever known to religious fervor; so enamored of the very idea of America—that coat of many colors that, despite repeated, robust efforts, could not be washed separately, its various hues inevitably bleeding into one another in unpredictably beautiful and exciting ways—what else could I be?
But now, after so many years, here in New York City of all places—“Jew York”—antisemitism had again knocked on my door, and this time, far from feeling triumphant and secure, I felt vulnerable. I hadn’t realized it before, but I saw now that I was just as steeped in my Jewishness as my Americanness. My most deeply held values—my dedication to social justice, equality, the right to think and speak freely, and other such lofty principles paid lip service to in our Constitution—were so thoroughly inculcated in me as a Jew as to almost be a part of my DNA. And even if I weren’t so viscerally and culturally connected to the tradition, it wouldn’t matter. Without particularly identifying myself as one, I was to all the world, a Jew. To many, a Jew first. To some, a Jew, exclusively.
If that were so, what was I to do about Mrs. Gloeckner? The Days of Awe had just begun, the ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when Jews are called upon to forgive other people and ask forgiveness for our transgressions. I had made light of this obligation in the past, even mocking it by going out of my way to say to my closest friends, “For the many serious transgressions, far too numerous to count, that you have committed against me in the past year, I forgive you. And for whatever peccadilloes of mine and perceived slights to which you may have taken undue umbrage, I beg your forgiveness.”
Nevertheless I couldn’t help wonder, if my cherished values meant anything, shouldn’t I try to find it in my heart to forgive Mrs. Gloeckner? And if I could, would that be the right thing to do? Would that make me a mensch, or a pusillanimous appeaser encouraging worse offenses down the road?
I briefly contemplated some sort of rapprochement with Mrs. Gloeckner. I imagined bringing her books, engaging her in reasonable discussion, and eventually enlightening her.
“What a fool I’ve been! How misguided,” she might say after my reeducation program. “I had no idea Jews were such a decent and benign people. And what great contributions they’ve made to civilization! Monotheism. The Law. The bagel! And so many Nobel Prize winners. Please, Mr. Keller, take me to synagogue with you. This Sabbath. If it’s not too late, I’d be honored to be part of such an esteemed tradition. I’d convert today if they’d have me.”
But young and idealistic though I may have been, I knew it would be hopeless. As weeks passed, it became clear to me that I did not have it in me either to forgive or forget.
In the early morning hours when I got home from work, her clattering typewriter no longer inspired or chastened; it enraged me. I wanted to pound on her door, break it down, throw her typewriter down the stairs, and her along with it. But, of course, I never would.