Life in Noshland

1 . 2 . 3

It’s not until way into the night, when the summer sun is completely gone and the sky has finally settled into blackness, that Zvi’s dad emerges from the storeroom.

He looks tired, more tired than usual even. His back of late has started to curl over, almost to hump, and the skin around his eyes sags like an empty plastic bag. He carries with him more sugar sticks, as if he could tell tonight they would need restocking, as if he can feel the beat of the store like his own pulse.

“Why are you still here, Tatty?” Zvi’s defenses are up. Is he worried or offended? Zvi can’t tell. When he’s at the counter a sort of bodilessness comes over him, a distance from life that is almost spiritual. It’s like he’s watching himself on a security camera, as if the store could afford something like that.

But his father doesn’t notice, only smiles indulgently. “I figured, long as someone’s keeping a watch up here, I’ll clean up a little downstairs, catch up a little with what needs getting done. It’s nice of you to mind the store.”

“But Ta, I was doing it so you wouldn’t have to be here late! Why don’t you go home, read a book, go out for a coffee with Mom?”

His father snorts. “Coffee! We got coffee right here. What in the hell would I do at home? Anyway, you shouldn’t be doing this on your last night. Go out with your friends. Do you know what Elkanah’s up to?”

“He had to do something,” he not exactly lies. He doesn’t know what Elkanah’s up to. Usually not even Elkanah knows what Elkanah’s up to.

His father shakes his head, weirdly angry. “At least you’re gettin’ out of here tomorrow,” he says. “Any longer and you might start to get used to this.”

His father picks up his bag — a threadbare bookbag that he’s been using forever, that has embarrassed Zvi since he’d carried a bookbag of his own — and pushes the door so it makes the same noise as a customer coming in. And he leaves.

After his father is gone Zvi feels a surge of anger of his own. His father, the biggest proponent of Zvi’s exodus, has always thought of himself as a martyr. He’s a good man: selfless, kind, unresting, the kind of man Zvi would like to be when he gets old, though he fears he will never be able to manage it — a little because he’s too selfish but more that he’s too lazy. He likes sitting on a couch watching videos on his phone, dammit. Not for him the staying at work until ten at night, except by necessity or by guilt.

In rapid fire, he dispenses Crunchy Donut Holes to Iggy from his class, a ramen bowl to his old summer camp counselor, and a soft-serve cone to the wife of a prominent community rabbi, the head of the beis din.

Then it’s quiet for a while. He finds himself thinking about the things he never allows himself to think about: mainly, his customers. In doing this job, he’s always acted as more or less a robot, allowing himself the barest amount of interaction with those people who give him money. Yes, this is a small community, and most of these people he either knows or is related to, but here he is at work, keeping guard over his father’s candy mountain, and if he doesn’t exactly need to maintain his concentration, he does need to keep his distance, if only so he doesn’t think too hard about the menial nature of his job, or of all the other things he could be doing right now if he wasn’t here. In their eyes he is a servant, a hired worker, and if he engages with them it will shatter the unspoken mutual agreement not to think about this too hard.

He takes out Elkanah’s marshmallows, turns them over in his hands. They aren’t a brand he’s familiar with. Kosher, but not one of the companies they usually sell in the shop — most of their wares come from Jewish-owned companies who rent time in the bigger factories, blowtorch the machines overnight, then come in and do a quick run of the year’s product. These marshmallows are a different brand, an artisan sweetshop, perhaps. Maybe that’s why they don’t feel like actual marshmallows. It’s weird — the package is completely solid. Is three while thing one massive marshmallow? It’s no use. You can’t see what’s inside.

He’s been fondling it so much, playing with the package, the seams, the weird residue of super glue on the back divider.  He doesn’t mean to do this, but suddenly there’s a tiny hole in that pillow of a package — it’s sprung a leak.

He should put it down. He brings it closer. Its contents are not white at all, but a grainy sort of brown. He recognizes it at once from the movies he started to watch as a kid, once he decided he wasn’t too religious to watch movies. It’s drugs.

There is a thought of calling the police. Not a serious one. The cops have always been good to him, the store, the neighborhood. There would be trouble, forms to fill out, a questioning. He might not be able to leave tomorrow — they might not let him leave the state for weeks. And, of course, two hours’ worth of his fingerprints are all over that bag.

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Not that any of it matters. Elkanah is his friend, and he was asked to do a favor. His involvement is minimal — that it even matters. It’s a favor. A friend. That’s all.

A man arrives in the shop in short beard and disheveled jacket. He is about Zvi’s age, not a Hasid, although it takes Zvi a few minutes to realize, he is trying to look like one. He’s got it all wrong. His coat is black, but with three buttons instead of two, and the cut of it falls wrong on his body — like he was measured for it in a shop instead of accepting the simplicity of its store-bought incarnation. His pants don’t match and his posture is just wrong.  His beard is faint, but not new — he’s about Zvi’s age, but its sharp edges make him look like someone on TV in a forgot-to-shave stupor, not a freshly-grown goat-boy tuft, worn and stuck out in exaggerated pride.

He doesn’t even make a pretense of looking at the food. “Shalom!” he announces flamboyantly, striding straight up to the counter.  

Zvi, all deadpan, barely lifts his lids. “Hey,” he ekes out, expecting a pitch for charity.

“I,” the dude announces, like he’s proud or something, “have just arrived in New York,” and waits for Zvi to mazel-tov him, and when nothing happens he continues, “It’s my first time. I didn’t grow up religious. Do you know where I can find a place for Shabbos, good friend?”

Now, wait, hold up, Zvi wants to say to him. I’m not your good friend, and if I was, I’d warn you to run away while you still can, but he doesn’t do any of that, he just works here. Finding a place for Shabbos, too, could mean anything — a meal, a bed, a place to pray. He can tell at once, though, the kid’s not after any of that.

“No idea, man, I’m out of here forever tomorrow,” he says. “You want to buy anything?”

The stranger seems horrified, dumbstruck. “You’re…leaving?” he manages, finally, and Zvi notices a backpack on the kid’s shoulder. “Why would you?”

Now Zvi is wishing that he was around through the weekend. Thinking of what would happen if he did have the kid over, of all the things he could teach him. Bringing someone closer to G-d is called mekareving them, and Zvi had a vision of mekareving this new, impressionable boy to his own vision of Crown Heights — the secrets and passwords, the nooks and crannies, the very strange people. Maybe he should stay here longer, maybe forever. But what would he do, when at last he left for real? His knowledge was non-transferrable. As of tomorrow, it was worth exactly nothing. If he didn’t start now, he never would.

“Kid,” he said, “here’s what to do. Tomorrow at sunset, go to the back left section of 770. Ask around for a guy with an orange beard named Elkanah. He’ll show you around, take you to dinner, show you a few parties after. There’ll be someone whose couch you can crash on. After that, you’re on your own. Except not really. You’re never on your own here.”

The kid stopped to consider that, then his face broke out on a big joyous grin. “You’re serious,” he said, reverently. And, “Thanks, brother,” as grateful as if he were praying, before it could possibly occur to him that never being on your own was not necessarily a good thing. And he didn’t even buy a snack, Zvi thinks, moving to rearrange the chocolate cracker sticks in the display.

The night crawls. He really does think about closing up shop, getting whatever remains of a full night’s sleep that he has left, being awake and aware when morning rolls around. Somehow that seems counter to his mission. Each night his father stands guard, sucking every last sale from the evening like a poor hungry capitalist vampire, and so he must as well.

“Zvi?” says a voice, tinged with disbelief, and he looks up, ready to defend his identity — This isn’t me, I’m doing my last shift, tomorrow I got big things in store, I’m gonna be in another time zone — when he sees it’s the one person who could possibly make him stay in Crown Heights forever. It is Tsivia Singer.

Tsivia was the girl all the boys wanted to tease, then wanted to marry, then could never find the courage to talk to. Entering adulthood, at fourteen and fifteen and sixteen, she went from being a neighborhood sort-of-friend to being a distant and unreachable figure. He couldn’t have a casual conversation with her any more than he could with an oil painting in a museum. Somewhere along the line, things got awkward; not an event but an acknowledgement of being, simply the way things were.

Later, he settled into a niche in Crown Heights, among the kids who weren’t quite OTD, weren’t off the derech, but weren’t really on any derech at all. They would never break Shabbos but they never did much about it, either, hung out at Elkanah’s parents’ house, drinking, eating, reading magazines. When Tsivia started coming he felt embarrassment at being discovered, then revulsion at her revealed imperfection, then finally a strangely comfortable comradeship.

She is staring at him. She is expecting him to respond.

That was part 2 of 3. The final part is right here, or go back to the beginning. Photo by Andrew E. Larsen.