My grandmother was eighty-nine and blind and I was a young boy hungry for quarters, so, in the waning light of Sunday afternoons, my parents gone, I would ring the doorbell (my friend Raymond smirking from behind the stairwell) and listen for the slow shuffle of slippers in the hall, the soft thump of her body against the closet. She would come to the door, my parakeet Jerry trapped in her hairnet, stammering a "Who's there?" in minimal English, between the chain and the doorjamb, and, without hesitancy or shame, in a cracked, mock-Hassidic voice, I'd answer: "United Jewish Appeal," swaying my hand, like a small plane moving over an airstrip, toward her. She would open the door—tentative, timid, charity having won out over terror— and reach a palm out into the hallway, the way she reached out under the candles to bless me on Sabbath. "My daughter . . ." she would stammer, "she is not home now," poking her eyes like Borges into the vastness. A better heart than mine was might have stopped there, but I was a boy ravenous for malteds and baseball cards, so I repeated the words of my small litany, "United Jewish Appeal," and reached my hand out again until it almost touched the blue print of her smock. All the while my parakeet sat there, dropping small coils of bird shit onto her hair until she retreated again down the long yellow hallway, reading the braille of the walls with her hands. And I would wink at my good friend Raymond behind the stairwell when the rattle of change clanged out from my parents' bedroom, and we heard again the slow sweep of her feet, and, at last, the shiny fruits of cleverness and hunger fell into my palm, and my grandmother Johanna, the parakeet still flapping like a crazed duck in her hairnet, closed the door behind her, leaving me and my friend Raymond to frolic off into the sun-licked, agnostic streets of Washington Heights, full of the love of grandmothers and of change, forever singing the praises of the United Jewish Appeal.
—with a line from Louise Glück
Humor functions in the neighborhood as it functioned in the shtetl: the only way into a world insistent on your pain. Something you’d be shot for. If they want you to cry, tears are evasive; if they want you vulnerable, vulnerability’s a cop-out; if they want a confession, your confession is cheap. “When I speak passionately, / that’s when I’m least to be trusted.” A privilege to weep when to laugh is to choke on history. Oh diaspora: seventy-five years ago I’d be gassed beside my sisters, yet here I am, running out for milk in a heated car. Does a funnier joke exist? Yet there’s so many jokes in this neighborhood, that one barely gets a laugh.
You’re telling us.