Read Part 1
By the time I was ten I had grown into an overweight, quivering mass of protoplasmic fear. In the real world, that unrelieved terror had been triggered by a report on the six o’clock news about an unsuspecting pedestrian, jaunty-jollying his way through the streets of Goyville, who had been conked on the noggin and killed by the calved cornice of a decaying skyscraper.
Perhaps if my name had been Rusty and not Rob-it, and I had possessed the po-mo superpower to hurl myself into my DuMont console and insinuate myself into the nest of one of the typical, two-dimensional Amurrican families that resided there, and had been able to engage the best-knowing father in a Socratic dialogue on the nature of chance, fate, and luck, then perhaps I might have learned that no matter what you do, say, or believe, there would come a time when, through no fault of your own, you’d find yourself in the wrong place at the wrongest of times and suffer death by falling debris. But I didn’t and therefore couldn’t. The religious indoctrination that I had been subjected to since a peanut in utero was still firmly anchored in the bedrock of my brain: I had no doubt that this anonymous dead guy had done something really bad, something that—in the eyes of the angry, jealous volcano deity my forebears had drafted to be the one and only—warranted death by crumbling concrete.
This was a bell that tolled for me, one that could not be unrung, clang, clang, clang.
It should come as no surprise that from then on, anytime I worked up the courage to take a weekend walkabout through the deserted canyons of midtown, I did so knowing that it was only a matter of time, and perhaps the breaking of a few additional thou-shalt-nots, before a moldering piece of architecture would loose itself from the decaying corner of a high-rise and, laser-guided by Himself on high, come crashing down on my wretched melon—a deific nullification.
At a certain point the sheer terror of being outside became unbearable and so, after a spirited back-and-forth between me and myself, we concluded that the best strategy to keep me breathing despite falling skies was to hide myself behind the double-locked door of Fortress Schneider. I was wrong. Fear and Trembling found easy entry into my keep; F & T simply beamed themselves in through the cathode ray tube. By the simple act of turning on the TV, I had become the agent of my own undoing.
They set me up by infesting my mind with a swarm of colossal-insect flicks. Giant ants (Them), their mandibles dripping with deadly formic acid, roamed the sewers of Los Angeles; giant locusts portended the Beginning of the End as they crawled up the skyscrapers of Chicago, while their lethal enemy (and our potential instrument of annihilation), The Deadly Mantis, stood momentarily triumphant atop the Washington Monument before meeting its end in Hollywoodland’s fictive Manhattan Tunnel; an outsized African wasp-beetle became the Monster from Green Hell; and hideous insects from outer space were grandiosely dubbed Cosmic Monsters, as if they were sci-fi objective correlatives (or the band name) of Jehovah and His Archangels. The Black Scorpion menaced Mexico; a titanic Tarantula locomoted through the Sonoran desert; a jumbo SFX spider threatened The Incredible Shrinking Man, who battled it to the death using a sewing needle as his spear.
But these B-movie body blows to kishka and breadbasket were mere prelude. The main feature in F & T’s double bill of dread, the haymaker that landed squarely al punto de mi mandibula,1 was a Sherlock Holmes mystery flicker, Spider Woman, which I arrogantly sat down to watch because, I assumed, it would be a goofy, time-killing Brit procedural. It quickly devolved into an experiment in terror I couldn’t tear my eyes from.
The movie begins with a string of suicides, pyjamaed men defenestrating willy-nilly, prompting Holmes to fake suicide in order to go undercover—as a dusky-skinned émigré from the Raj, fallen on hard times—in order to catch the band of cutthroats only he knows is behind what only he knows to be murders, a gang led by a female Moriarty, the flick’s eponymous Spider Woman (Gale Sondegaard), who seeks out guys short on bread and long on bills, convinces them to pawn their life insurance policies for a bowl of porridge, then dispatches a trusted pygmy to sneak a venomous spider, the Lycosa carnivora,2 into the fool’s bed, where it bites the mark, causing him such great pain that he can do naught but Geronimo himself through the nearest window. If this large octoped were not enough to leave me with a lifelong case of the creepy-crawly heebie-jeebies, what followed most certainly was. Holmes seeks out the counsel of a noted entomologist, but the Spider Woman has had an underling grease the arachno-expert and take his place so’s he can snuff Holmes and Watson too. Holmes picks the wannabe assassin’s pocket, lifts his gun, hands it to Watson; the confused weasel wants to know how he was made, and Holmes obliges in an ostentatious soliloquy of deduction:3 You called these glass cases cages; any scientist would call them terrariums. You said the poison of the Lycosa carnivora was valuable to doctors; any scientist would say the virus is valuable to toxicologists. You said you were told that black widows eat their mates; any scientist would know it. Watson is so entranced by Holmes’s spot-on, Aspergian powers of reason, he loses his mind for what he is doing; the hitman knocks the gun out of Doc W’s hand, smashes one of the terrariums, and makes good his getaway. Out of the shards of glass comes an efflux of teensy spiders scrabbling across the floor and all over the gun; as Watson is about to pick the pistol up, Holmes warns him off with the big voice: Look out, Watson, those insects are deadly!
I now knew with unsettling certainty that even the smallest of eight-legged creatures was capable of sending me on the long goodbye. And they could be anywhere. A clutter of deadly arachnids might be lying in wait in webs woven behind my toilet so that they might bite me on the butt when next I sat down to attempt peristaltic eviction of the shit squatting painfully in my lower intestine; they could be catching zzz’s in my sultry, smelly, orthopedic shoes, nesting inside my feathery pillow, or taking up residence in the crotch of one of my scratchy woolen sabbath-go-to-meeting suits. In light of this imagined octopoidal swarm, I realized I had to be on high alert both inside and out of mi casa.
For a short time I chased the chimera of parental protection from both hella lethal flora and fauna of the natural world and death from above the urban environment. But that spring, on the first night of Passover, the delusive hope of safety within the nest was shattered.
The gansa mishpuchah was expected, to partake in both a group ponderation on the question Why is this night different from all other nights? and an unleavened grande bouffe. The long aluminum table was set, the food was on the fire, the Manischevitz Malaga4 ready to be poured. The doorbell would ring at any moment, so what could be more appropriate in advance of an influx of family than to watch Invaders from Mars on the The Early Show?
Young David wakes up in the middle of the night in time to see a spaceship burrow beneath the ground in his spooky backyard. Hysteria rockets him into Mom and Dad’s room. He reports, they patronize, he’s sent back to bed. Curious, Dad reconnoiters; the earth swallows him up. Morning, no Pops in sight, Mom calls the cops. Dad returns—disheveled, snarly, dressed in black. David remarks on the pin sticking out of Pop’s neck; a smacking and grounding follow. Alone in his room, our hero watches the earth open and swallow little Kathy Wilson, so he goes to the cops, only the Chief of Police sports the same staple as Dad. David, now in a cell, is visited by a hotsy-totsy internist. She doesn’t know what to make of David’s story until she meets his womb,5 who’s radiating subzero severity. David’s definitely not making shit up. A working hypothesis takes shape—the Martians, feeling threatened by the space gun David’s dad has been working on (the utility of which presaged Ray-Gun’s Star Wars defense fantasy), have come to Earth to destroy it. Bodies start dropping: the pin in the back of the head can be remotely detonated to cause a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. Beneath the earth David leads a host into battle. Through a maze of alien-made tunnels, they square off against a horde of galumphing gorks telepathically commanded from a glass-enclosed macrocephalic bronze brain sporting a pair of fiercely bloodshot eyes and several sets of T Rex-like atrophied arms—a stoned, alien-invader avatar of the Hindu god Krishna. After he saves the world, David wakes up, checks in with the folks, and, assured that the whole adventure was naught but a nightmare, heads back to his room, where, in a Mobius-strip climax intended to leave the tykes in the audience in a loopy state of anticipatory dread, he sees through his window a flying saucer burrowing its way into the sand pit behind his house.
As the credits rolled, the buzzer began to ring. Aunts, uncles, cousins started trooping in. As soon as I saw the rheumy, hive-mind stare aimed my way, I knew the answer to that first of the four questions. Why was this night was going to be different from all others? Because on this night the whole sick crew had been stapled and enthralled, and I was alone, and doomed.
Yet life went on. Clearly, my spellbound parentals were playing the long game. In mid-June, when I had almost forgotten what grave peril I was in, they snipped the gossamer string to my personal Sword of Damocles and dropped it on my conk (cascading concrete of the mind). They sentenced me to three weeks in ortho-sleepaway camp, in the woods, in Jersey!
The camp was made up of twelve outsized wooden shacks forming a U, framing a quad of mangy grass—a mess hall, an admin building, a rec room/theater that doubled as a house of prayer, and eight dorms, two for each age group, two troops (as they were dubbed) to each bungalow, a counselor (to be addressed as Uncle) for each troop. The twelfth structure was the shower shack, to which every Thursday, smelling like ass after a week of poor personal hygiene and plenty of shvitzing in the blazing Jersey sun, we would be marched to be hosed down.
Once we were herded off the buses, the selection was made, first by age, then by size. We were marched to our gulags and given bunk assignments. My prize for being the tallest, huskiest dork was the last bed, the one with closest proximity to a parliament of pissoirs, a shrewdness of shit stalls, a watch of wash basins, clocal hell; to make matters worse, my cubbyhole was affixed to the partition wall between us and the excretorium, the stink from which wafted through the wall, into my cubby, and settled there, the noxious vapors leaving a subtle, shit-ammoniac scent on all that I had crammed into it.
After settling in, we went to dinner—a kosher meat and three (starches), intestinal spackle to further clog sluggish entrails. Then it was back to the bunk for the alpha boychik ritual establishing-of-the-pecking-order, a lost cause for me because the moment I’d dreaded since first I heard my parents pronounce sentence was now at hand—the nighttime toilette. I now had to don my external, must-be-worn-whilst-in-the-arms-of-Morpheus, orthodontic headgear—a banded elastic chapeau, a cross between a helmet liner and a jockstrap, with a chromium face bow that threaded through elongated eyelets on my braces, nightly joined to my dontic truss by means of rubber bands.
I put it on and was mortified, both because I was self-conscious enough to know how ridiculous I looked and because my empathy-free peers reacted with waves of laughter and a surge of cruel tauntation. All that laughing was clearly muy sedating, as shortly, guffaws gave way to peaceful breathing as all the boys departed for Slumberland.
All, that is, but me, for whom rapturous sleep was not a viable form of escape. My insomnia was overdetermined: my stomach ached because dinner was stuck somewhere between duodenum and jejunum; the humiliation I had just experienced from morphing into The Hapless Helmet-Monster from Orthodontia Hell was washing over me in waves of almost unbearable angst; a scourge of mosquitos was buzzing round my ear, drilling for my blood; and, if that weren’t enough, I anticipated an attack of tiny yet deadly arachnids the moment I dozed off.
Rosy-fingered dawn at last clawed its way through the grime-caked screens, followed in rapid succession by reveille (this was the height of the Cold War and we were all programmed to keep watching the skies), breakfast, and our first contact with the pool. After being warned not to swim within an hour of eating (we had just had breakfast!), and to buddy up so that even if we do cramp, maybe we won’t drown, the Uncle in Chief let it be known that pissing in the pool would not be tolerated and that the pool had been treated with a chemical that, when it came in contact with the skin of a little pischer perp, would cause said skin to break out in a deep-red rash—the scarlet letter P.
Since poor impulse control was yet another of my characterological deficits, I immediately drained my bladder into the pool.
That night dread floated over me—just as the special effects Angel of Death in The Ten Commandments floated over biblical Cairo on his way to plague the Egyptians’ firstborn—as I anticipated the rash exposé that would pin me for the little pisspot that I was.
The rash never appeared.
We had been lied to. I applied my considerable Talmudic candlepower to this observation and quickly understood that the lie was intended to scare us, frightened kids being much easier to control than carefree ones. A further splitting of hairs made me sure of something I had long suspected: adults were neither reliable nor trustworthy and the only person I could truly count on to figure shit out was me. The dawning of this new, unsettling normal sent my world spinning off its axis like an entropic top wobbling to a sad, sad stasis.
And in this way three weeks passed with stuperous Rob-it in a metaphysical tailspin, eating crap, barely crapping, sleeping just about not at all.
On my the ride home from Camp Gehenna I dream-listened as a couple of alpha boys dissertated about the lore and ordnance of juvenile delinquents. One fascinating reveal was that the two-word initialism DTK LAMF, graffiti’d on what seemed like every poster in the subway, stood for down to kill, like a motherfucker, while other factoids, further advancing my budding worldview that life kills, concerned the tools used by these MFs when they got DTK. Push-button knives were as ubiquitous as they were illegal, and gravity knives were only proscribed if the length of the blade was longer than the distance from pinkie to index finger, the urban-legendary four-finger rule; deadly, jury-rigged zip guns were being assembled in machine shops in high schools throughout the city, and were responsible for hundreds of deaths of kids just like me; most disturbing of all, every JD gang had as part of its arsenal homemade mortars fashioned out of tin cans, capped with magically fabricated silencers, their deadly projectiles made from four repurposed M-80s, the equivalent of a stick of dynamite.6
All during the voyage through the dusky Lincoln Tunnel I imagined the day I might trespass on a spit of disputed territory and instigate a Turf warrior to respond without warning by firing a silent but deadly round of M-80-x-four my way via his homemade tube of death that had once been four or five cans of yummy Niblets innocence.
Based on this reporting, which I had no reason to believe was mere confabulation, it seemed clear that anytime I might set foot out of doors, I would have to dodge a daily double of death: even if I miraculously managed to sidestep that chunk o’ rock racing toward me at 32 feet per second per second, it was unlikely I could also outrun a missile fired from a homemade mortar cooked up somewhere in the bowels of Hell’s Kitchen.
This panic-driven pensée led me to definitively conclude that no matter the indoor dangers posed by insect fauna and the father-mother, they were far more manageable than the threats to life and limb risked by an alfresco ramble.
After three weeks of enforced interaction with camp’s cruel kids, being home alone was a paradise. I reveled in my solitude. I could eat food anytime, day or night, and follow it up with a leisurely, if irregular, crap, as long as I remembered to check behind and beneath the bowl to make certain no venomous arachnids were lurking about.
On my third day home, bowing to parental pressure, I decided to wash off the dirt of the road. I drew a lukewarm bath and luxuriated in it, delighted to see my fart bubbles float to the surface to release an odor only I could love, while at the same time making waves that rocked my mighty navy, comprising a hair brush (my destroyer) and an empty can of talc (my aircraft carrier), until my fingers got pruney and the once-clear water grew turbid. Then I rose out of the tub roaring, Gojira emerging from Tokyo Bay.
After toweling off, I unleashed a storm of Ammens Medicated Powder upon my person and, saving the best for last, gently blanketed my scrotum. That’s when I first felt it, a hard, small, scab-like something growing on my silky smooth nutsack.
A chill ran up my spine.
What the hell could that be?
I lifted my leg, craned my head as if I were about to kiss my own ass, and saw a tiny, swollen creature, its head buried in my balls. I counted. It had eight legs. My stomach tightened. My scrotum shrank. I didn’t know what to do, who to turn to.
Oh, yes I did. The Womb!
Because the phones in the apartment above and the dry goods store below were extensions, the shtetl-family Schneider had their personal walkie-talkie system. If the parentals wanted to speak to me, they would bang the ceiling with a broom handle. If I needed to communicate with them, I would stomp on the floor.
I ran to the phone, stomped hard as I could. The Womb picked up, annoyed.
What, Rob-it? What do you want?
Come up here. Right away. It’s an emergency.
Rob-it, we’re busy.
Come up here right now! I need help!
I went back to the bathroom, sat on the toilet.
I heard the downstairs door slam, heard footfalls on the treads, heard the front door open, heard her yell, Rob-it, where are you? even before she was through it.
Bathroom, was all I could manage.
She entered, eyes crossed with anxiety, looked at me; when she saw me still naked, she understood the seriousness of the sitch, started peppering me with questions.
Why aren’t you dressed?
What’s the matter with you?
Why did you get me up here in the middle of the afternoon rush?
I was too angst-ridden to answer.
When I finally tried to talk, only a choked Mom-m-m squeaked out.
Rob-it, tell me what’s the matter, right now!
It was awkward, embarrassing, but it had to be done.
I stood, cupped my privates in my hands, began bouncing from foot to foot, before finally blurting out: I was taking a bath and then, when I was drying myself off and putting powder on my… I felt this thing—
That’s all she needed to hear. She ripped my hands away from my nethers, grabbed my scrotum, inspected. I knew precisely when she saw it because she gave out a scream that could be heard across the river in Hoboken.
I started crying. She vanished. Before I could even begin to formulate a theory of what she might be doing, she was back, a pair of cuticle scissors locked and loaded in her quivering fingers.
What’s she gonna do with those scissors? I wondered.
It didn’t take long to find out.
Don’t worry, Rob-it, Mommy is going to take care of everything.
I started screaming, No Mommy, don’t do that! and watched in a swoony horror as she grabbed that arachnid on my balls by its eight little legs, placed the cuticle scissors on the spot on my scrotum where it had bored its way in, and with a decisive snip, cut off the little fucker’s head, nipping off a skoche of scrotum skin in the process. Then she flushed it down the toilet. Her vigilante surgery successfully completed, she turned to me, a demented smile on her face, and said, Everything is going to be all right.
I don’t think so, Mom, I really don’t, I thought as she hugged me and told me to get dressed.
After you get dressed, Rob-it, she added as an afterthought, toast yourself an English muffin. I made chopped liver this morning.
After Mom exited triumphant, I stood frozen in place. I couldn’t move but I could still think. As recent paralyzing events looped past my mind’s eye, I began to fully comprehend the serious error in judgment that had led me to deduce that in was safer than out. This eureka moment startled me back from the outer limits just as the last drops of dingy water were circling the drain. In that moment, if I knew one thing, it was that I needed to get as far away from the scene of the crime as fast as my orthopedic shoes would carry me.
I suited up, scooted down the stairs, and was out the door.
I wandered in a dissociative fog, trying to recover from the trauma of a second bris. As present reality began to filter back into focus, I found myself deeply engrossed in an ontological meditation, so engrossed that I nearly forgot the dangers posed by falling bricks and flying artisanal mortar shells. Here was the issue that I had circled for a number of years but had never had the courage to get down and dirty with. Now, thanks to Wacky Womb’s scrote snipping, I had no choice but to face it head-on: How could God and my mother exist in the same universe?
I had only to relive the moment of the scissored incision to know that my mother existed. That left the question of God’s existence.
Having just recently learned that the scientific method was a real thing, I decided to apply it here in order to prove one way or the other whether God existed.
I settled on pork to test my hypothesis, since God had been very clear on the subject: The swine, though it divides the hoof … does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. [Its] flesh you shall not eat, and [its] carcass you shall not touch.
I returned home, grabbed fifty cents from the silver butter dish I used to stash my cash money, then walked three and a half blocks south until I stood before Manganaro’s, home of the six-foot hero.
I crossed the threshold in the name of science.
The gruff guy behind the counter began our interaction, Whatchu want?
Salami and cheese.
What kinda salami?
I was stumped already.
Genoa, Sicilian, Casalingo, Calabrese, Milano, Super-sot?
The last one. It just sounded so good.
Off another blank look, Swiss, provolone, fresh muzzarell-l-l-l.
Swiss. They were neutral in the war.
Half or whole?
This was a completely new language for ordering food. Each question felt like a test. I must answer correctly. Half.
Anything to drink?
Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry.
Tony, we carry Dr. Brown’s?
From the back came an emphatic no.
My first real blunder. Pepsi. I’ll take a Pepsi.
He sliced the salami and cheese at the speed of light, layering the slices atop the hero bread as he went, slathered on mustard, wrapped the whole thing in wax paper, put it in a kraft bag along with napkins and the Pepsi, the opened cap popped back on, then handed it to me. It happened so fast, was done with such grace, that I wanted to applaud.
I handed him the two quarters. Giddy with transgression, I left the store and just about ran to Bryant Park over by Sixth Avenue and Fortieth Street, in the shadow of the great library, home to the helpless and the homeless. I sat on a deserted bench and pulled out my fragrant, enticing ontological experiment.
I stood my Pepsi up beside me, unwrapped the sandwich, and breathed in its ravishing aroma. I then opened the sandwich and pulled out a piece of the super-sot; I licked it clean of mustard and studied it.
The first thing that struck me was the color—a deep, complex red. The grains of fat weren’t uniform or evenly distributed like in kosher salami. They were random and distinct, little islands of fat floating in an ocean of aromatic pork.
The time had come.
I placed the slice back in the sandwich, took a big bite, closed my eyes, and slowly chewed. What I tasted was a revelation—it was indescribably, ineffably, impossibly delicious! The sweet nuttiness of the Swiss cheese served as perfect complement to the sharp, salty, metallic taste of the meat. I took another big bite and washed it down with sweet, fizzy cola.
I then sat on the bench waiting, perhaps even hoping for God’s wrath. I closed my eyes, scrunched my face, held my breath, jammed my jaws till my teeth ached. Any nano I expected the cranky volcano god to potch me upside my head and send me hurtling headlong into hell.
I waited and waited. Then I cracked one eye open, panned around, scoped out the scene. No avenging angels armed with burning scythes under orders from the almighty to smite the transgressor, just the usual suspects, homeless guys and gals. There was only but one conclusion to be drawn—there was no almighty to give the smite order, nor were there angels to carry out his wishes.
At the precise moment I had definitively determined God did not exist, a Bag Lady chose to rest her weary bones at the other end of the bench. She placed her overstuffed bag between herself and me—the Great Wall of Garbage—reached deep into the bag, pulled out a loaf of Wonder Bread along with what the cops would call a blunt object—a stick with a metal head on it in the shape of a tear.
Soon there was a kit of pigeons cooing, feasting on the crumbs.
Before you could say what the fuck she had a pigeon sitting on her lap, being hand-fed by her.
After a couple minutes she began to alternately pet the pigeon and lightly bash it on the head with her blunt instrument. Stroke, bash. Stroke, bash. Stroke, bash. I felt the same admixture of fascination and terror I had felt watching Spider Woman, and as with the movie, I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
Bag Lady, sensing an audience, swiveled her head my way after each stroke, bash.
The poor pigeon tried to flap its wings and fly but couldn’t—Bag Lady held it in an iron grip. Stroke, bash, swivel.
The pigeon’s eyes were filled with terror. Stroke, bash, swivel.
It took a long time to die. But die it finally did with a climactic stroke, bash, and rapturous swivel; the serene, mysterious smile on Bag Lady’s face gave her the appearance of a demented La Gioconda.
I got up slowly so as to not spook the murderous Bag Lady and began the long trudge homeward, the terror I usually felt during a walk in the world now all but forgotten. With madness and metaphysical truth burned into my cerebral cortex. I pondered the fact that I had, through the action of an overheated metaphysical idea pump, exchanged the imagined terror of falling skies and lethal insects for the true horror of a godless world in which mad men and women wandered the mean streets looking for defenseless pigeons to victimize.
When I finally dragged ass home, I walked straight to my room and went full ostrich, stuffing my head beneath a pillow, and lay there, yearning for a simpler, safer time, when the only things that menaced me were all in my mind.
1 In the eighties, long about a Saturday night, My Friend the Psychologist and I would tune in to channel 47, a Spanish-speaking UHF station, to watch Boxeo Desde Mexico, because we loved the blood, guts, and action of Mexican boxers going mano a mano. When a boxer was knocked down or out by a punch to the
jaw, it would send the fans (as well as my friend and I) into a frenzy, during which the announcer would
excitedly detail each and every punch in the finishing flurry and always end by saying of the right cross de grâce that it caught the victim en el punto de la mandibula (square on the jawbone).
2 Which, Holmes explains to the credulous Watson, is the deadliest insect known to science, its native habitat being the upper reaches of the Obungo River, and its venom, once injected into the bloodstream, causes such excruciating agony the victom is driven to self-destruction.
3 Holmes prefaces his deduction with this hilarious observation, which didn’t fit my tendential purposes but I needed to share with you anyway: Mendax flagrante is Latin for flagrant liar. When you told me you could get me one, I knew you for what you were, a flagrant liar.
4 The Manischewitz catalog describes Extra Heavy Malaga as a specially sweetened fruity wine with a generous mouth feel [&] the distinct aroma and flavor of fresh Concord grapes… Before god unleashed the tenth plague on Egypt he gave Moses marching orders—have my chosen people splash lambs blood on the right, outer frame of their doorways (from which act is derived Die Mezuzah), so that the Angel of Death would pass over them and only slaughter the first born of their masters—the freeing of slaves is always a bloody affair. Four questions asked at the beginning of the seder are answered as the evening progresses, each answer along the way fortified by a cup of wine. Back on the shtetl, where sourgrass broth (schav) was the soup du jour, wine was a hard-to-come-by luxury. The most common wine drunk during the emancipation celebration in the Pale was ersatz and nonalcoholic, made from boiling down raisins in water until what was left was a sweet and syrupy glop that had the benefit of being kosher for Passover because it avoided fermentation, which the Ashkenazi mistakenly conflated with leavening, and that in Amurrica was favored not only for its faux kashruth cred, but also because, since not actually being hooch, it was exempt from excise tax. In Amurrica the Ashkenaz discovered the Concord grape and, along with their Italian neighbors on the Lower East Side, began to distill wine—in the land of Good & Plenty they could afford alcohol—from the deep purple berries sold by the box out of pushcarts. The Italians made a dry wine known in the nabe as dago red, while the yids added mucho sugar to amp up the cloying factor that invoked memories of the un-booze they had quaffed in the old country. This New World alcoholic wine was exempt from Prohibition as savvy producers of the sweet elixir justified its sale citing the Section 6 exclusion of sacramental wines. Sam Schapiro even went as far as to change the name of his kosher restaurant—it became Schapiro’s House of Kosher and Sacramental Wines. (A friend of mine tried the same thing with pot by creating a religion, the Roster of the Fourth Way, proclaiming weed its herbal sacrament. Didn’t take.) In my yoot, Jewish households (the ones I was acquainted with, at least) got their syrupy vino from a limited group of producers, from Kedem, Hersh’s, Mogen David, Schapiro’s (the slogan for which was Wine so thick you can almost cut it with a knife), and, of course, the Schneider family fave, Manischewitz.
5 See Who Dat Who Say Who Dat When I Say Who Dat fn 5.
6 Only recently, by perusing the virtual pages of Wikipedia, did I learn that “contrary to urban legend,” an M-80 is not equivalent to a quarter-stick of dynamite. Though both contain three grams of powder, dynamite is made from a stable nitroglycerin-based high explosive, while an M-80 (or any other kind of firecracker) contains only flash powder. It’s the difference between blowing something up and taking a picture of the explosion.