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Backstory

From the anthology Brooklyn Jews “Knish Reminiscence” in Jews of Brooklyn, Brandeis University Press, 2002

Bland black lettering stands in place of the scripted neon that once proclaimed Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes. The dulled orange counter that ran the length of the shop is gone. There’s no indication of the continued availability of cherry lime rickeys. And, as if to compound the retreat of Mrs. Stahl’s into the back right corner of the shop: no onion pletzels today.

The pletzel is a flat latke wannabe, a rectangular tongue of onion-strewn dough: hot, thin, salt-tickled and just greasy enough to assert its presence with a translucent brown bag smudge. Cyrillic letters are skewed pictograms on the five-foot high plexiglas knish menu. Semi-foreign characters represent the steady cast of ingredients: cherry cheese, spinach-potato, mushroom. The current-day incarnation of Mrs. Stahl plucks one steaming kasha from the metal knish repository. She bags it for me and chatters in Spanish. I take a plastic white knife to the tawny knish, douse both halves in mustard and order a hot tea. This is the only place that makes me sentimental about styrofoam. Without Gramma, Mrs. Stahl’s is elevated from pit stop to destination.

I rummage for money and find none. My wallet is at home. The knish woman shows no signs of pity. For two years I have kept myself from Mrs. Stahl’s and Brighton Beach. There’s no reason she should recognize me or note my re-appearance. I go to the car, scrounge $2.20 for my snack, resign to return soon for a neat, pleated metal tray of cocktail knishes. My Atlanta cousins are dying for another shipment.

Today the wind coaxes me past the blank excavation of Brighton Baths. A grey sky tucks itself into my pocket. A man in a black hat and peyes walks towards me. I am convinced he will stop to reveal a kabalistic message from Gramma. She dreaded the day they would dismantle the Baths. Just as well, I think as I approach the boardwalk, just as well she is not here to witness it: the new development would have ruined her view. My second birthday without her and I have decided, impromptu, to buck past the Brooklyn landmarks I have been eschewing in grief and weakness.

The Prospect Expressway dumps me onto Ocean Parkway. Alone, I rekindle my traditional birthday pilgrimage. Today, place will be person. I count on Brighton to assuage my restlessness and indecision. Each cross street screams a story.

Church Avenue: her husband’s used car lot—now converted to an incomplete church across from the stables. Rugby Road: the dim apartment above the alleyway, where, before there were trees on the street, she holed herself up with perpetually packed cardboard boxes and cigarettes; where no visitors were allowed; where she fought with Al, or ignored him in the kitchen he infused with a Sunday smell of lox, eggs and onions.

Avenue M: the Caravelle Diner, only acceptable eatery for Aunt Sid and Aunt Rose—relatives through friendship, not blood—who piled their dining room three-layers thick with heirloom furniture and urged cases of matzo on Gramma before and after Passover, until their deaths.

1199 Ocean Avenue: Apartment 1L, phone GE4-3868 where she wooed Caribbean neighbors with stuffed cabbage and applesauce pinked from peels. The bus shelter right in front of the building where she was pushed to a broken hip and her first stay at Maimonides Hospital. (I raced home from Massachusetts).

Avenue U: the Chinese restaurant we shuttled her to every second or third weekend in the ’80s. Gramma and I would split the egg rolls, but she always gave me her tough, bubbled skin.

The Coney Island Avenue funeral home we filled with friends and tardy, insistent relatives is on the verge of demise. Today, the Ocean Parkway foliage seems to peak; golden leaves stream from trees against my windshield. The street must be as it was for the funeral. Jenn and Sarah got there early, so sat on a bench to bask in the Brooklyn autumn. I was as if colorblind. Today, I imagine that the dark oak paneling of Schwartz Brothers Chapel has been peeled away, that light floods the somber den and congregation room, thwarting the tentative movements of a flat-faced funeral director who spoke only in the third-person past- tense.

It is easier to be on the beach than I expected. My favorite jetty is dotted with afternoon lovers. I balance myself on a rock surrounded with ocean thunder and residual foam. Again, the black-hatted figure. Again, silence. A seagull stares at me from the crest of a wave. Bald-legged Russian women wade along the hard sand. The tea is milky and sweet, the knish warm and grainy. Kasha was Gramma’s favorite too. There were always several in her freezer. Now, I allow myself to thaw. I look up at the building where she lived, find the window that was hers and realize I don’t need a messenger to invoke her presence.