Like an aging bear, I am not often brave or cunning. I try to proceed from my cave with caution because I tend to blot my copybook, as the English say. Out I come at the wrong season, when the world is bemused daily by Jews and their Holocausts, past and pending. As if that were not enough, I just read in an art column that the time for manifestos has passed. So I thought I’d write one, the Belated Bear stumbling forward, brandishing his paintbrush, into the tunnel at the end of the light . . .
—R.B. Kitaj, First Diasporist Manifesto
Using an enormous tone, a breathy, enveloping vibrato, and terrific glissandos, he constructed castles of sound that were romantic but never sentimental, luxuriant but tasteful, yearning but free of self-pity.
—Whitney Balliet on Ben Webster, 1973
A toddler waddles toward the street, his height and the traffic signal working against his favor. He’s been twisting in his mother’s hold, and when she drops a shopping bag, her blouses and socks spilling onto the sidewalk, he pulls free. The mother is guiding a baby stroller on the incline, and so she cannot rush forward to stop her son. Instead, she shouts after him in a shrill, helpless, desperate voice.
But there is a man at the curb, waiting for the light to change, or maybe he’s just resting there, and as he stands with a window squeegee in one hand, a plastic bucket in the other, the wind raises and lowers his dark blue shirt over his dirty chino pants, shuttering glimpses of his pink back like a kid playing with a drape. When the mother cries out he turns. He spots the running boy. Calmly—so calmly—he puts down the bucket and shuffles to the side, which stops the boy. The light changes. The boy stands there, smiling, transfixed, as the man flips his large hand front to the back and back to the front until the mother collects her bag, her wits, and her son’s arm, finally yanking all that across the intersection. Not a word or glance or glare is given to this man who has saved her son from the street. He tips his baseball cap after them and follows, slowly.
• • •
Suddenly my typewriter jams. For some reason, the spacebar on my 1929 Remington Noiseless Portable locks up and refuses to advance. I can backspace the carriage to type a letter, but that’s a tedious way to progress in English.
Otherwise, it’s a solid, compact machine, with a black case and a worn leather handle, two tones of brown from age, fraying at the seams. Inside the lid is a snapseal paper pocket where I keep some odds and ends, among them a yellowed newspaper clipping that tells how many hundreds of Egyptian babies are born every day. Don’t blame me. The keyboard is German, which means, among other things, that the Z and Y keys are transposed. I’ve never quite mastered the altered lettering, and I like that. Sometimes, when I type, say, "yesterday" and it comes out "zesterdaz," I feel a quick smile pulsing my eyes. The typewriter teaches adaptability, compromise, patience, rhythm.
In the Yellow Pages I find the repair shop nearest my Clinton Street apartment, Goldwasser’s Type Rite, and that’s where Lisa and I are headed when the boy escapes toward the intersection. Lisa sees it first. We’re half a block away, approaching, when she stops and grabs my elbow. I follow her stare, trailing along a line: from her painfully frightened eyes to the bodega where I buy my cigarettes, Rattner’s Deli, a yellow cab, then up briefly to an airplane before landing on the man, the woman, the boy. My leg tenses forward—at first because I’ve spotted what grabbed Lisa’s attention, now because I see that we’re too far away to do anything about it. The goal now is to take in as much information as possible. We are witnesses.
This is what I see, still: the moment the man first eyes the boy. The way he so fluidly moves his squeegee from one hand to the other. And his look remains at once confident and surprised, prepared and excited. It is a moment without politics. I’ve yet to see him again. He remains one of my heroes.
I move my typewriter case from one hand to the other when he does the same with his squeegee. I want to be something more than a witness—that is my tearless cry—but we’re too far away. So we stand until the boy is with his mother in the intersection, and then we continue toward the repair shop. When we pass the squeegee man, he tips his cap at us, too.
• • •
Albert Goldwasser’s Type Rite is above a wholesale carpet store. Most of the secondfloor loft is piled with rolls of carpeting, but in a far corner stands a square room within the room with walls that don’t quite reach the ceiling. A box of yellowish light plays on the rafters. A well-muffled generator shuts off when I press the buzzer.
From its elfin frame a pale, mottled arm motions us into the musty workshop, crammed with shelves of Royals, IBMs, Olivettis, Smith Corona Marchants, Underwoods, the workbench cluttered with screwdrivers and pliers and cans of solvent. Goldwasser wears a soiled baggy blue apron over his white shortsleeve shirt, black tie, and gray trousers. He takes the Remington from my hand in the same way our hero handled his squeegee, removes the lid, swivels a desk light over the keyboard, and clucks four times.
"Germany," he says blandly, and the soft "r" of his pronunciation tells me that he was born there or near those borders. "About 1929. Where did you buy this?"
"Jerusalem," I say. He smiles, briefly. "About 1980."
"It has traveled much since?"
"Back to Kansas, and here to New York."
Goldwasser taps the space bar, and nothing happens.
"Problem here," he says. "Kansas. You are a Jew?"
"Blond hair. Green eyes. You do not look like a Jew. Jews in Kansas. Like some outer space movie." He studies Lisa. "You, young lady, you are also a Jew?" She nods. "No rings on the fingers? Nu? Get married. You look good together. I should live so long to dance at your wedding."
"My typewriter," I say.
"Yes. You should not marry a typewriter. A typewriter creates words. A marriage creates babies. You have a job?"
"Feh! So already you are married to this typewriter. You have competition, young lady. And you have a job?"
"A student," she answers.
"The best job." He appraises her, toe to head, lingering on her hips and breasts, settling for some moments on her eyes.
I dictate to Goldwasser my name, address, phone number. He offers up a receipt but does not let go, and both of us are holding it as he says, "Your typewriter I can fix. The wedding I can’t fix. Call me sometime next week, any day but Saturday. I’ll have for you an estimate."
And then: "Your girlfriend, she has the most lovely eyes. They remind me . . . ah. I shall not trouble you. Please. A bit of transference will be a good thing. Do me sometime the favor of passing on my admiration of her eyes. Windows to the soul, no? Make it sound like the notion was yours. You, young lady, will know when the words are his and when they are memories of me."