As I mentioned at the beginning of this month, I’m going to be periodically posting excerpts from the abandoned semiautobiographical novel I had been working on prior to my ALS diagnosis.
The following is part of a backstory for my biological mother that is 100% fiction.
To refer to Elaine’s parents, Saul and Ida Goldberg, as dour was just a bit too severe. Rather, there’s was a tangible dullness, a narrow range of expression that rarely if ever approached joy. There’s was an affect common amongst many first generation post-Holocaust Jews, understandably haunted as they were by the horrors their ancestors were subjected to, while subjected themselves to ongoing anti-Semitism and the ever-present pressure from the goyishe world to assimilate. Their limited emotional availability to their children might, to an outsider, seem a glaring contradiction.
Wouldn’t a people who were under threat for so much of their history cling to their children tightly, enveloping them with love and affection, celebrating the joy of the gift of life, each life a great big “Fuck You!!!” to those who would like to see them exterminated?
Instead, Jewish parents of this era often clung to as the non-negotiable top priority: security, and, in America at least, that meant a ferocious work ethic, first in school and then in one’s career, ideally in a lucrative profession with ample advancement opportunities. For young women, it was simpler, while by no means less oppressive: land a husband destined for said achievements. This was seen as the only rational pathway towards success and away from danger. To guide one’s children along this path was a matter of survival, whether or not the kids knew this themselves, and mostly they didn’t. They just knew it wasn’t fun.
Elaine was therefore spared the more intense pressure that her older brother Harold faced. And yet, Harold seemed largely unscathed. He excelled at school, he never complained about working part-time in the family plumbing business, and he declared on his own, without parental prompting, that, after college, once his father was ready to retire, he would be honored to take over the business. In fact, once he graduated with his Masters in Business Administration, Harold submitted to his father a new business plan an inch thick, to include expansion into a regional chain of Goldberg Plumbing locations, and the purchase of a large warehouse, so that they could then purchase parts and materials at bulk rate for a substantial savings and have a facility to store them at and distribute them from. When Saul passed away years later, Harold sold the little, yet highly successful Goldberg Plumbing empire to a much larger chain for a sum that meant he never had to work another day in his life.
And so he didn’t, and he bought a house in Hawaii, became a solid 15 handicap golfer, and learned to play ukulele for his wife’s hula classes. Once every 3-5 years or so he paid for his whole family to fly to Oahu for a giant luau, even though for some of the family the whole pig roasted traditionally — in a pit in the ground, covered with banana leaves — was a shocking betrayal of the kosher laws and affirmation that what Hitler started assimilation would finish off.
Elaine started out in life as an ultra extrovert, the quintessential precocious child, animated by relentless energy and joie de vivre. She was having none of this beaten-down-by-the-Holocaust business, though she didn’t really understand that this was why her parents and most adults she knew could not join her in her kind of enthusiasm for life. Many in the extended Goldberg family of aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as neighbors and synagogue members referred to her as the Jewish Shirley Temple.
This was no accident.
On Saturday and Sunday mornings, on one of the local TV stations out of New York City, there were always old movies playing, many in black and white: Laurel & Hardy, Abbot & Costello, The Little Rascals, and… Shirley Temple. From the very first time she ever set eyes on Shirley Temple, with those bouncy curls accentuating an equally bouncy, exuberant, irrepressible personality, Elaine knew how she wanted to be in the world.
She ran rings around her peers at school, in the classroom, on the playground, and the first chance she got, on the floorboards of the tiny school stage in the gymnasium, she became the star of her elementary school theater productions. For many of the boys she was their first crush, and most of the other girls wanted to be like her, though their parents weren’t always so keen:
What business does that Goldberg girl have being so happy all the time, so smart, so capable, so pretty. She’s Jewish!
Mr. & Mrs. Goldberg, though they could not ever meet Elaine’s level of enthusiasm and optimism for life, were very proud of her. They gave her a wide berth, having had no cause for concern…
…that is, until she menstruated for the first time.
Once conception became a biological possibility, regardless of the fact that Elaine could not have been more innocent and never, ever the flirt, Ida and Saul Goldberg, with a traumatic thud, transformed nearly overnight into prison guards, something Elaine had absolutely no capacity to understand, much less accept. Dress codes, curfews, restricted language, a growing list of “off-limits” kids at school, and…
No godamned Rock ‘n’ Roll music!
Of course, there was a narrow set of legitimate concerns that parents of daughters might have, and which they would take reasonable precautions to guard against, but the Goldbergs were not those parents. Years later, a therapist would explain to Elaine that one or both of her parents had very possibly been victims of some kind of sexual misfortune, indignity, or trauma, and as a result were hardwired with paranoia.
From the outside of the Goldberg family looking in, the changes were just as noticeable and dramatic. Nearly overnight, Elaine’s glow was gone, her inexhaustible energy, like static electricity, all snuffed out. She became withdrawn and quiet, no more school theater, no more sports, no school dances. Friends, who’d been so eager to be in her orbit drifted away gradually, in search of someone else who was the life of the party.
“Sis, you gotta snap out of it,” insisted Harold, on an unusually rainy and gloomy spring day, as if Elaine was responsible for the weather.
“Leave me alone.”
“Listen, I know Mom and Dad are being totally unfair, but you gotta figure out a way to have some fun. You’re a real downer.”
“You wouldn’t know anything about it! The perfect son. Always does everything right.”
“But I don’t always do everything right! I’ve just gotten REALLY good at hiding it! Come on, let me give you some tips.”
Thus began Elaine’s introduction to deception and her education on how to employee it.
First, she learned that Harold and his friends, years prior, had discovered an old doorway via a set of downward-leading concrete stairs in an alley downtown, that led to an abandoned basement space beneath a movie theater. The theater had been a live entertainment venue for many years — vaudeville originally, but later the home of the Brooklyn Repertory Theatre Company — and the basement was filled with props and costumes. But when it was converted to a movie house, the basement ceased to serve a purpose, and the Brooklyn Rep property was mysteriously abandoned.
To a mischievous fellowship of high school boys, it became a magical oasis.
They first spent several weeks moving the bulk of the inventory out to the perimeter. Then, laying out a large oriental rug in the center, they established a kind of drawing room space, with sofas, chairs, tables and lamps. They found a liquor cabinet and bar cart, which they stocked with help from older siblings. They’d meet up in their clandestine clubhouse, don tuxedo and smoking jackets, pretend to be stodgy aristocrats for all of 5 minutes, then dispense with the theatre routine and set about discussing the most important topics of the day: girls, the Dodgers — first as devoted fans and then, after the team’s move to Los Angeles in 1957, jilted lovers — girls, movies, girls, Elvis Presley, and girls, girls, girls.
Learning all this was shocking to Elaine. That Harold could be leading such a rich secret double life was nearly impossible for her to fathom. And yet, rather than dwelling on how this could be true, Elaine instead became determined to gain membership to Harold’s little social club, despite the age gap (two years her senior), and the more challenging gender gap. Harold’s answer to her request to join him on his next visit to the theater basement was firmly denied, and so, bolstered by Harold’s own suggestion that she learn to be deceptive, Elaine set about planning a break-in of sorts, to crash the party, and if at all possible make herself useful and indispensable to these young men.
One Saturday, around midday, Harold announced to the family that he was going out and meeting up with his friends. Elaine had been prepared, having thought for several weeks that she needed some believable excuse for her own departure from the home. After all, there’s no way she’d be allowed to just head out on her own unsupervised. But this day, she knew there was going to be a clothing drive for the homeless at her high school, which she announced before Harold left, and she asked, in earshot of their parents, if he would give her a ride. Still, regardless of the ready story, there was suspicion, first non-verbally from Harold, shooting her a look that seemed to say: What in the world are you up to?! And this was followed immediately by a brief interrogation from Saul and Ida concerning the details: What teachers will be there supervising? Who else is going? How will you be getting home and when?
Elaine hadn’t exactly thought it through this far, she hadn’t considered the consequences should her parents attempt to confirm the details, and Harold hadn’t quite reached this part in his covert delinquency training. Elaine named names anyway, pronounced an end time for the school function, and afforded herself some extra time by stating that she’d stay and wait at school for Harold to pick her up in the afternoon as he was heading home. Harold seemed a bit put out by having been wrangled into chauffeur duties, yet he reluctantly relented, feeling somewhat responsible for having set Elaine on this path not properly prepared.
“What the HELL are you up to, Lainey?!” Harold demanded, once they were safely in his hand-me-down Ford.
“Please, please, please let me come with you to the clubhouse!”
“No godamned way! Are you crazy?”
“You said I should have some fun!”
“The guys would kill me if I brought you there! I never should have mentioned it. Shit!”
“I won’t say a thing! I’ll just sit quietly, off to the side, you won’t even know I’m there!”
“What the hell do you guys do anyway? Whack off or something?”
“As if I don’t know what whacking off is.”
“Shut it, alright?!”
“Well, what do you talk about? No…let me guess, when you aren’t whacking off, you probably talk about who you think of when you whack off. Right?”
“We don’t whack off!!!”
“Ok, to be fair, we do talk about girls a lot.”
“Yes, and last I checked, I’m a girl! And I know a heck of a lot about my fellow girls.”
“It’s embarrassing, sis. Ok? None of us is any good at it. I swear, Aaron’s about ready to slit his godamned wrists because Rebecca Berkowitz ignores the shit out of him.”
“Rebecca?! Well, yeah, might be out of his league. Tough break, that.”
“Yeah, so a lot of help you’d be!”
“But wait! Aaron’s a nice guy, kinda handsome too. He’s just a little bookish. Does he have to wear his glasses all the time?”
“I don’t think so. He said he got contacts, but he hasn’t gotten used to them yet.”
“Listen. Lose the glasses, lose the godamned Dodgers cap, get some new Levi’s, roll ‘em up to the ankles, a little Brillcreem, not a lot!, and Rebecca might just be in reach after all!”
And just like that, Elaine made herself useful, useful enough to squirm her way into the all-boys network. Oh, there was intense pushback for sure. In fact it was Aaron himself, Christian to Elaine’s proposed Cyrano, who exclaimed, “The Jewish Shirley Temple?! Are you fucking kidding me?!” despite the fact that it had been several years since Elaine resembled the child movie star in any way at all.
Elaine helped the boys, one after another, and as an unanticipated result Elaine received another kind of education — Boys & Men 101 — that she never would have received otherwise. But more than that, she developed a comfort around boys, she enjoyed their often filthy language, found it all thrilling. Spending time with them heightened the edginess of her already substantial risk taking. As she snuck around her parents penal system, she experienced frequent exhilarating sparks of excitement and a taste of freedom.