THE LADY AND THE HAT
Thanksgiving weekend could offer raw weather whenever it wanted to in the Bronx of the late 1970’s. And that year it must have wanted to as we visited the place where I had grown up twenty years before. My parents and my wife's parents still lived there, and we traveled from our rural home three hundred miles away to find the holiday spirit strong in the city air. Our son was a little one—five or six years old, perhaps. And while we could not afford a family trip to the Christmas show at Radio City, I did want to expose him to things he would not experience living in a town of a few hundred people. And so I popped on his coat and buttoned myself up for a trip of a different kind.
My son’s concept of New York was, up until that day, made up of the images he saw in the twin and multi-unit brick one and two family houses that were everywhere around his grandmother’s house. While I could see the subtle differences among them all, I was sure that he could not. Every house looked like grandma’s house. So we walked half a block to the bus route on Allerton Avenue and waited hand in hand for the giant big-glassed model of the day. Our destination: the Jewish enclave of Lydig Avenue. In those days, the area on the south side of Pelham Parkway and spilling east of White Plains Road was virtually exclusive to apartment buildings of considerable size and similarity. Often built around a courtyard of sorts, the first floors of the buildings on some of the streets—Lydig Avenue being one of them—were lined with storefronts.
There were kosher meat markets with fresh-killed chickens in the window, and delicatessens with sliced delights amongst the open pickle barrels. Outside, the horseradish grinder. The fumes from the freshly ground root were so overpowering it had to be done in the open air! Each store seemed busy with local patrons entering with an empty two-wheeled shopping wagon and leaving with a paper package containing the evening meal tucked inside. Just a few minutes from home, standing on a sidewalk on Lydig Avenue was truly a different city view for me and more importantly for my son.
I had no plan, no agenda. I just wanted to stroll the street, maybe buy a real Jewish frankfurter with sauerkraut and a potato knish, and hope that he would soak in some sights, sounds and smells unfamiliar to him thus far in his life. I hoped my son would not stare, or worse, yell out at the strange wide-brimmed hats and long black coats of any orthodox Jews we might encounter. I wanted him to hear a foreign accent of the non-Italian kind--the only kind he was used to hearing from time spent visiting his grandparents. Would he remember any of this? Would he notice anything at all? Even if he didn’t, we’d get a good lunch out of it.
The streets were busy with people coming and going, but they were not hurried. Some stopped to chat with one another. I don’t remember any children around that day; it seemed as though we were dropped in as observers and I confess to a bit of self-consciousness as I awkwardly ordered our lunch from a man who knew I didn’t live around there. This was no tourist destination; just a little pocket of ethnicity that I remembered was there. And I wanted to share it with my son. And so I did. We went into a candy store for a treat and it was in there that we encountered The Lady. My son and I were just about to leave when another customer, an old, babushka-wrapped woman who looked as if she was built with the same rough brick faces as the apartment houses all around us, stopped me. Physically stopped me with her hand. She held my coat, looked into my eyes and sharply scolded me in a heavy, halting German accent: “Zat bebe needs und hat!” And after she said her peace, she released me and continued on her way into the cold air outside. I was stunned for a moment. My boy had a confused look as if to say, “Daddy, do you know that lady?”
And that was the point. I didn't know that lady. She was a total stranger who took it upon herself to speak up. It was cold and I had neglected to put on my son’s hat. She was doing more than offering her opinion: she was righting a wrong that she could just not let stand. And as we continued our stroll along the avenue and eventually to the bus stop for home, I looked back and saw dozens of ladies like the one who spoke to me. All of them busy with their own lives but protective of not only the banks of uniform buildings of their world, but of all the people in it. Even two visitors there on a lark.