NICKELS AND DIMES
I was talking about work with my wife’s 96 year-old dad Tony a couple of days ago. He grew up in the Great Depression when jobs and money were scarce, and I asked him to tell me about the first job he ever had. He didn’t hesitate at all.
He said, “I sold eggs when I was 8 years old.”
This surprised me because I knew he grew up in the heart of Brooklyn, NY, and I couldn’t imagine where you’d get eggs or how you’d sell them.
When I asked him to tell me more, here’s what he said. “My dad had a friend who lived on a farm in New Jersey. Once a week, we’d drive out there and pick up about 40 dozen eggs, and we’d bring them back to Brooklyn. Sometimes we’d sell them at a flea market, and sometimes we’d just stand on a corner downtown and sell them to people passing by. I liked selling them more than I liked gathering them together. The chickens were always flapping their wings and yelling at us when we tried to gather the eggs.”
I asked him then how much he got paid at his first job. He smiled and said, “A nickel a week.”
Talking to him got me thinking. When I was a kid growing up in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago back in the 50s, a lot of my American friends got allowances: a quarter a week, sometimes 50 cents a week. My Polish friends and I didn’t get allowances. Back then, I didn’t think our parents understood the concept.
I remember one time asking my mom for an allowance. I said, “Mom, how about an allowance for sweeping up the stairs in our building? A quarter a week?” She gave me a hard look and told me that back in the old country, in Poland, kids slaughtered pigs on their own with wooden hammers and drained the black lumpy blood from the carcasses and made Polish sausage from the guts every day of the week for nothing, not even a quick thanks a lot in Polish.”
And then she said to me in Polish, “if you won’t do the chores unless I pay you, then don’t.” And right away, she grabbed my broom and went outside and stopped the first kid she saw on the street (a kid I hated from school) and she gave him a quarter just for sweeping the stairs that I would have swept for free.
And what did this teach me?
The simple answer is not to ask my mom for an allowance. But the greater answer is that this taught me that family is never about money. It’s about loyalty and love and helping each other no matter what the cost.
This is a recent column I wrote for the Polish Daily News in Chicago, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.
Yesterday, as we were sitting at the dinner table, my wife Linda looked up from her plate of pasta and said to me, “You know we haven’t taken a vacation in more than a year.”
I nodded. I know how much she loves vacations and planning vacations. She loves the work of finding great prices on cruises and resorts and wonderful weekends in places I never thought I’d visit. Since she retired from being a university administrator 15 years ago, vacations and planning them has been her greatest passion, outside of loving me, of course.
Her statement about vacations got me thinking. I started wondering about the other changes in my life since the pandemic started. Of course, there are the big changes, the obvious ones. I don’t go to all the places I loved going to before. I don’t go to libraries or movie theaters or museums or coffee shops anymore. In fact, I don’t go much anywhere, except to buy gasoline at the station down the street. I don’t see my friends either. I haven’t sat across a table from Doug Thom or Mike Friedman or Bob Milewski in over a year and talked about whatever it was we used to talk about. .
But there have also been little changes that I hadn’t thought about until my wife said what she said about vacations.
For instance, you may not believe this, but I’ve stopped using deodorant. I wasn’t even aware that I had stopped using it until one day my wife told me she was going shopping and asked me if I needed some deodorant. I walked into the bathroom and picked up my Old Spice and realized then that I probably hadn’t put on deodorant in maybe a couple of months. I stood there with the Old Spice in my hand, wondering why I had stopped using it. Has the pandemic caused me to stop sweating? I can’t imagine it has.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve stopped wearing shoes. When I get up in the morning, I put on my slippers, and they pretty much stay on my feet all day. Even when I have to go outside to take out the garbage or check the mail or take a walk around the neighborhood or drive to the gas station to buy some gas, I do it in my slippers. The last time I put on my favorite pair of shoes in fact was about a week ago. I saw them in the closet, and I thought I would put them on for a slight change of pace. As soon as I did, I realized it was a mistake. My favorite shoes, ones I had worn for years, suddenly felt awkward, tight, like they didn’t belong to me at all.
But the biggest weirdest, most unexplainable change is the one that I hate the most. I’ve lost my taste for snacking. Don’t ask me why, but suddenly I’ve stopped snacking. Before the pandemic, I would snack on cranberries or almonds or wasabi peas all day long. I’d take a handful in the middle of the morning and the afternoon and the evening.
Now I see one of my old favorites, I just keep walking.
My Mad monk Ikkyu book is available for preorder.
After years of writing poems and memoir pieces about my parents and their experiences in the slave labor camps in Germany, I somehow started writing poems about the monk Ikkyu, a 15th century Japanese monk, a Buddhist. What appealed to me about him was his sense of humor and his love for people and his awareness of the darker side of life. In a lot of ways, I guess, he reminded me of my dad.
The book is coming out in June, and is now available in preorder from the publisher, finishing line press.
Here’s the cover for my Finishing Line Press book of Ikkyu poems.
The cover illustration is by my friend, the wonderful artist, Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk who took time out from working on his paintings of Dante’s Inferno.
I asked him to do a cover and sent him the manuscript to read. Through some incredible convergence of cosmic invibration, he decided to base his image for the cover on my favorite Ikkyu poem.
Here it is:
in the marketplace
and tries to explain
Here’s what he says
to a soldier:
A tree is
the palm of my hand
and the face
of all there is
in the universe
to wonder about.
It is the tree to heaven
and its roots start
in my heart and yours.
The book in fact is available for preorder already!
Here’s the link
Not a Christmas Letter
Just about every year since my wife Linda and I got married back in 1975, I’ve written a Christmas Letter. In it I’d tell all our friends and family members who weren’t living close to us about what Linda and I had been doing that past year. I’d talk about the vacations we’d taken and the charming and wonderful things our daughter Lillian and granddaughter Lucy do. I’d tell people too about my writing projects and how they were going, the poems and essays and novels I’d published and the novels I was working on.
And I’d always find a little bit of space in these Christmas Letters to talk about the funny things that had happened to us. I’d talk about trying to fix a pipe in a sink that just wouldn’t stay fixed, or I’d go on and on about the day we found our lost cat Valley, but it didn’t turn out to be our cat Valley at all.
I always liked writing these Christmas Letters because they were a way of thinking back on the experiences of the past year and enjoying them all over again.
I didn’t write a Christmas Letter this year, and I bet you know why.
This is the year I don’t want to remember.
It’s this COVID pandemic with its 340,000 deaths here in the US and 1.8 million deaths worldwide. The pandemic kept me from writing the Christmas Letter.
This pandemic only started officially here in the United States at the beginning of February when the Trump Administration announced a nationwide public health emergency, but it feels like it’s been here longer than that. It feels like it started ten years ago or maybe twenty years ago. It feels like it’s always been here since I was a kid riding my bicycle down Division Street. Sometimes, it even feels like all my good and happy memories from my life way before the pandemic have been colored gray and squeezed tight by the pandemic.
I know that this isn’t really true. The pandemic with all its disappointments and frustrations and painful changes and illnesses and sufferings and deaths hasn’t always been here. It just feels that way as I sit in my home and think about all the life that I and everybody else in the world today has missed this year. It feels that way as I think about the family members and friends I haven’t seen this last year. It feels that way as I watch the news every morning and see reports about the difficulties the medical professionals are having distributing the COVID vaccine. It feels that way as I read about President Trump’s endless whining about how he hasn’t lost the election. It feels like that as I watch the people I love struggle to maintain some cheer in the face of all this.
Sure, I know it will get better. After every apocalyptic pandemic in mankind’s history, there was always a revival of life and love and humanity.
I just want to know when.
My latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.
Our First Christmases after the
We had Christmas in the refugee camps in Germany after the war. I don’t remember them, of course. I was just a baby and a toddler then. But we had Christmas. I know because somewhere my parents found someone who had a camera, and they took pictures of our Christmases in the camps. In one of them, I’m a naked baby, lying on my tummy underneath a ragged Christmas tree and smiling a big beautiful baby smile. The following year, my parents took a photo of my sister Danusha and me sitting in front of a tree holding what looks like a rubber ball. In the last photo I have from that time, I’m sitting on a rocking horse my dad made for me on my third Christmas. I’m looking very very pleased.
My fourth Christmas wasn’t as happy. It took place on a farm outside of Buffalo, New York, where my parents were working to pay off their passage to America from the refugee camps. There’s not much I remember about that Christmas, only the cold and the snow and my mother’s complaints about both of them. She hated the cold. It reminded her of the winters in Germany during the war when she was a slave laborer. She said that their winters broke the souls of old people and left children frozen like wheat stalks in the fields, hollow reeds that the winds and ice blew through. The cold in Buffalo was just as bad, she said. She talked about the wooden shoes she wore in the work camps in Germany and how cold the frozen ground was on her skin as she dug for beets. She knew nothing about America but thought that maybe farther west in Chicago there wouldn’t be so much snow.
She was wrong about the snow in Chicago. That first winter in Chicago, I remember standing on a street corner on Milwaukee Avenue with my father. We watched cars struggling in the street to get around a green bus that was sunk into white hill as tall as a cow.
But the snow and cold in Chicago really didn’t matter that much because my parents found Polish friends there who we could celebrate Christmas with just as they did in Poland. I remember that first Christmas in Chicago. We were living in a small apartment near the Congress Theater on Christmas Eve, and my parents were preparing us for bed when they heard a knock on the door. My father opened it and laughed and shouted to my sister Danusha and me to come quickly. There was someone there to see us.
We ran to the door and there was a big man with a white beard and a fat belly and a red stocking cap on his head, and across his shoulder and down his back was an enormous blue bag filled with presents.
And that wasn’t all.
Behind him were laughing children and their smiling parents carrying pots and bowls of food and a dish with oplatek on it.
Somehow Poland had found us in America.
This was my column this week in the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.
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