East Seventh Street: Christmas, 1937
[ places - january 09 ]
I am nine years old. There is a God. Jesus Christ is his son. We are Irish, but my deaf mother is Ukrainian. I am in the fourth grade at Most Holy Redeemer Parochial School. The nuns are Germans. We must attend morning Mass six days a week, excluding Saturday. The nuns are quick to hit us, but I know that I'm at the head of the class, and so I feel safe, most of the time. We are told, and we believe, God is watching us all the time, keeping a record. The Pope is God's representative on Earth. We are bound to obey the Pope. If we don't, we will go to Hell and an eternity of torment. The Jews killed Jesus and are accursed for it. They must spend the rest of their lives roaming the earth, despised for what they did. I learned that today at school.
I was so overcome that I went home and on the way up to our flat I impulsively stopped at Mrs Singer's door and knocked. When she opened it, I told her with awe the news about the Jews that I had learned that day at school. She had a small, wet dishcloth in her hands and looked at me with her blue eyes wide open as if she were looking at a ghost. She said nothing, and slowly closed the door, latching it from inside as if I were a robber and might enter. I am afraid that she will never speak to me again.
We lived in a cold water railroad flat tenement on the Lower East Side. A coal stove is in the kitchen. Across the way is a public park. The branches of its trees reach up to the fourth floor where we live. At night in the dead of winter my mother dresses me in flannel underwear, not once but twice. Socks are drawn up to my knees. Pants are pulled over my legs. Two flannel shirts and an old sweater and a leather aviator's hat that has ear flaps - these are added quickly. I am shivering. Then I am pushed up onto a bed layered with old blankets. When I exhale, I see smoke. Yes, I see smoke coming out of my mouth. I draw the blankets up and turn on my side, reciting, "Our Father who art in heaven..." I try to go to sleep knowing that in all the world I am alone that night in the dark and that should I die in my sleep Jesus and his mother will take me to heaven. But I do not sleep until I see the top branches of the trees across from my window. Their shadows are moving across my ceiling, across the wall over my head, right and left, moving, as if forever, telling me all is well. I am on the earth, and the stars comfort me. I must tell Mrs Singer that I am sorry that I hurt her feelings. I will tell her that I did not know what I was saying. I will tell her that I was only telling her the news, otherwise I won't get a nickel from her every Friday afternoon for lighting her gas. I begin to fall asleep. I'll get the nickel and Mrs Singer will like me again.
Orthodox Jews at the beginning of the Sabbath would pay a few pennies to non-Jewish kids if they would light the gas on the kitchen stove, for it was forbidden to them to labor once the Sabbath had begun. The non-Jewish kid was called, in Yiddish, a shabbos goy. I was a consummate shabbos goy, having a kind of monopoly over three tenements in which I lit the gas for a number of old Jewish women. With those coins, I went to the movies. In a few years, non-Jewish kids now grown older would be turning on the gas for millions of Jews.