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Flatbush Flashback

Everybody Had a Hard Year

Everybody Had a Hard Year

Soho street art. Photograph © Robert Rosen.

 

On Friday, March 12, my wife, Mary Lyn Maiscott, and I received our second Covid vaccinations at a Duane Reade a few blocks from where we live—Moderna for those keeping score.

 

Exactly one year after New York City went into lockdown we walked out of the drugstore feeling elated, facing the world as fully vaccinated people, awaiting a return to something approaching normalcy. To celebrate, we bought bread and little pizzas at the Sullivan Street Bakery.

 

People told us we were lucky to get vaccinated so quickly. I've no doubt. I know people in Florida and Missouri who drove hundreds of miles to be vaccinated. We've certainly been luckier than the nearly 540,000 Americans (more than 30,000 in New York City alone) who've died from Covid-19 and continue to die at a rate of about 1,400 per day. That only one person in my family, my 81-year-old uncle, succumbed to the disease is both tragic and miraculous. My mother, 94 and in an assisted-living facility in Florida, continues to endure, though I haven't seen her in more than a year.

 

I've spent that year mostly within the confines of my apartment with Mary Lyn and our cat, Oiseau, who seems to appreciate having us here 24/7 and will soon be in for a rude shock. The days have been a blur of routine and routine horror. April, the "cruelest month" as T.S. Elliot called it in "The Wasteland," more than lived up to its reputation in 2020.

  • It was the month almost a thousand people a day in New York City died from Covid.
  • It was the month the sound of ambulance sirens were heard round the clock and the sound of vuvuzelas and people banging on pots and pans to salute "essential workers" filled the air every evening at seven.
  •  It was the month most of our building cleared out and we were the only ones left on the seventh floor.
  • It was the month that one morning, before dawn, clad in latex gloves and a $3 face mask and armed with a small bottle of hard-to-find hand sanitizer, I ventured into a supermarket. On the checkout line, I saw, social-distancing behind me, a man wearing a gas mask, with the rest of his body, down to his shoes, wrapped in plastic garbage bags, his cart overflowing with carrots, potatoes, and onions. I felt as if I were in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie.
  •  It was the month we stopped going to supermarkets.
  •  It was the month we began washing our groceries with disinfectant.
  •  It was the month I began studying a Covid map of the USA. A small corner of Montana had no cases. I wanted to be there.
  •  It was the month we stopped taking the subway.
  •  It was the month Mary Lyn began working from home, turning our couch and coffee table into her office.
  •  It was the month I lived in a state of terror and didn't leave the house for days at a time.
  •  It was the month that when I did emerge from my apartment, always early in the morning or late at night, when there were fewer people in the street, I felt enraged every time a maskless person came too close to me.
  •  It was the month, while passing through Times Square, I saw only two people: the Naked Cowboy and a solitary tourist listening to him.
  •  It was the month that every time my throat felt scratchy I thought it was the beginning of the end.
  •  It was the month I became aware of the mobile morgues—refrigerated trucks and trailers—parked outside every hospital and couldn't walk past one without imagining the overflow of bodies inside.
  •  It was the month my post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie became more of an Edgar Allan Poe story.

And that was only April.

 

As the months passed and the body count grew, every day I binge-watched the news, though it sometimes made me feel physically ill. I could barely believe I was living in a country that elected Donald Trump. For all the good it did (none), I began rage-tweeting at Trump in response to his endless flow of toxic inanities.

 

By May, as restaurants struggled to survive, our entire neighborhood, Soho, was transformed into one big outdoor café. It would have been nice to sit in one of those cafés and have a glass of wine if being around people didn't seem like such a bad idea.

 

frum.jpg

Post-riot graffiti as literary criticism. Photo © Robert Rosen.

 

On a Saturday night at the end of May, after the murder of George Floyd, Soho was trashed and looted. The luxury stores and quaint restaurants were reduced to a jumble of smashed windows and boarded-up storefronts, some covered with graffiti, others with street art.

 

The pandemic played havoc with what I loosely call "my writing business." The European and West Coast events I was planning for Bobby in Naziland went by the wayside. My participation in a documentary, Did America Kill John Lennon?, and an event celebrating Lennon's 80th birthday, at Subterranean Books in St. Louis, were postponed indefinitely.

 

But some good news did emerge from our household: Being in lockdown gave me time to make progress on a new book, as yet untitled, about the 1970s. You can read a description here. And Mary Lyn released some new music, including a pandemic-inspired song, "I Can't Touch You (Supermoon)."

 

Then came the election. We lived through that, too.

 

Now I'm wondering if the widespread availability of vaccinations is the light at the end of the tunnel or just another oncoming train.

 

I'm betting on light. In a rare act of faith and optimism, I've rescheduled my Lennon event at Subterranean Books for October 7, 2021. I hope to see some of you there, well vaccinated and probably still masked.

________

My latest book, Bobby in Naziland, is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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Bobby (and I) in St. Louis

 

Guest Post by Mary Lyn Maiscott

My husband, Robert Rosen, and I were supposed to be in St. Louis this month. We'd gone in October last year so that Bob could do a reading from his memoir, Bobby in Naziland: A Tale of Flatbush, at Subterranean Books, an indie store on a popular strip called the Loop, near Washington University. Bob had a great turnout, including relatives and friends of ours—I grew up in the area, and my two siblings, Cecilia and John, and my nephew Sean live in the city.

 

After the event, the bookstore manager told Bob they'd love for him to come back, and so a date was set—October 9, 2020, John Lennon's 80th birthday; Bob was going to read from his 2000 cult classic, Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon. With that settled, a group of us walked across Delmar Boulevard to celebrate at a Thai restaurant and, later, the club Blueberry Hill (famous for the numerous performances in its Duck Room by favorite son Chuck Berry).

 

Of course, the October 2020 Lennon reading evaporated in the wake of the coronavirus. But the event that transpired last year remains a wonderful memory, and Bob and I are both grateful to Subterranean and all of those who came out that night—a spirited Q&A followed the reading—as well as those who attended another reading, at the spacious, art-filled home of Bob's childhood friend Ernie Abramson, who had, coincidentally, moved to St. Louis long ago to study dentistry. 

 

Soon after we got back to New York, we found out that Bobby in Naziland had made a bestseller list in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch! And now Subterranean has set a date for next spring for the Nowhere Man event. 

 

In the meantime, Bob is working on a book about the 1970s, and I have a single coming out inspired by feelings of missing people, especially my family, during this time: "I Can't Touch You (Supermoon)." It's a true quarantine production, and I'll be writing more about it before its release November 20!

 

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Next Stop, Philadelphia… But First, a Word About St. Louis

 

If you're into Brooklyn, candy stores, and literature, the place to be Sunday, October 27, at 10 AM, is Temple Sinai in Dresher, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb. In celebration of Bobby in Naziland and my father's candy store, which plays a big part in the memoir, the temple book club is building a candy store on site. They will be serving egg creams and I will be reading from and signing copies of the book. The event is free and all are welcome. To attend, please RSVP by October 22 to Tobey Grand, tgrand10290@gmail.com.

 

With any luck, the event will go as well as last Wednesday's reading at Subterranean Books, in St. Louis, where, for an enthusiastic SRO crowd, I read from two chapters of Bobby in Naziland, "The Goyim and the Jews" and "Something Different Happened." Though the book, in many ways, is the best published representation of what you might call my "natural voice," parts of it are not easy to read out loud in front of people, though I didn't realize this until I started preparing for the reading.

 

Primarily, it has to do with the subject matter and the way it's presented—the thoughts and emotions of a meshuggener child filtered through an adult consciousness. The book's narrator, in describing his childhood experiences, reverts back to that childhood.

 

As I explained at Subterranean, some of the passages I'd first considered reading were just too raw. I wouldn't have been comfortable reading them in front of an audience. For example, I thought I might read from chapter two, "Naziland," part of which describes the mutilated Auschwitz survivors I saw in the locker room at a Brooklyn beach club a friend had taken me to when I was 10 years old. But it was too painful, I decided. Another part I chose not to read was a graphic depiction of racism—it was too wrenching and emotional.

 

Instead, I read (or should I say "gossiped"?) about my Brooklyn neighbors from six decades ago, and I read granular descriptions of the Flatbush streets—what they looked like, sounded like, felt like, and smelled like. I also read a scene that took place February 10, 1964, 79 days after the Kennedy assassination and the day after the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show—the moment when the 1960s began for me. The Q&A that followed was lively and served as another reminder that the themes I explored in Bobby in Naziland are universal.

 

Earlier that week in St. Louis, at a private gathering, I read "The Flatbush Diet," which I described as one of the "lighter and more Jewish chapters." The party was thrown by an old friend from Flatbush, whom I'd lost touch with in 1972, soon after he'd transferred to an out-of-town college. I mostly remembered Ernest Abramson from our super-competitive pickup football games. In the ensuing years, he'd become a prosperous dentist who lived in a beautiful, art-filled home in the St. Louis suburbs.

 

It was mind-blowing when he contacted me. He happened to see the book on Amazon, and noticed my name, but thought that there were thousands of Robert Rosens (which there are). Then he saw my picture and realized it was me. He read Bobby in Naziland and it blew his mind. "It was like reading my biography," he said.

 

The party he and his wife, Ellen, threw was fantastic—a gathering of the local Jewish community, and a feast of many of the foods I wrote about, including chopped liver and numerous sweets that my father used to sell in his candy store.

 

The dialogue that followed the reading was exactly the kind of provocative conversation I'd hoped the book would spark—a discussion of the newly inflamed bigotry throughout the world and the fact that the generation that experienced the Holocaust and fought in World War II is dying out and that their stories must never be forgotten.

 

These events made me feel that Bobby in Naziland is a book that's bringing people together. I hope this will continue in Philadelphia and beyond.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you really should buy it.

 

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my recently launched Instagram.

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Meet Me in St. Louis

 

The first official event of the Bobby in Naziland reading tour, 2019-20, will take place at Subterranean Books, in St. Louis, on Wednesday, October 16, at 7 PM. I'll be reading from chapter one, "The Goyim and the Jews," which sets the scene for the book and gives the reader a sense of what it was like to be in Flatbush in the 1950s and 60s, when a significant portion of the population of this provincial Brooklyn neighborhood was comprised of Holocaust survivors and World War II vets who'd fought the Nazis.

 

I'll then be taking questions, and one question I expect (because many people have already asked me) is: Why that title?

 

It's a good question, and I can tell you this: I lived with that title for years, and it stuck—because it's an accurate title; it's what the book's about. Because of who my neighbors were, Flatbush was a place where the war lingered like a mass hallucination. Ghosts of the Nazis were everywhere.

 

As you may have guessed, the title is also a reference to Alice in Wonderland. As you may not have guessed, the subtitle, A Tale of Flatbush, is a reference to the subtitle of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivner: A Story of Wall Street.

 

If there's still time after the questions, for my encore I'll read part of the Beatles section, from chapter 18, "Something Different Happened."

 

I'm very much looking forward to returning to St. Louis, which I make a point of doing when I have a new book out. When I was there in 2012, after the publication of Beaver Street, I did three events, in Shameless Grounds, Left Bank Books, and the late, lamented Apop.

 

Wednesday, at Subterranean, I hope to see some familiar faces.

 

________

I'll be reading and signing Bobby in Naziland at Temple Sinai, in Dresher, PA, Sunday, October 27, 10 AM. To attend, please RSVP by Oct. 22 to Tobey Grand, tgrand10290@gmail.com. The event is free, all are welcome, and, I'm told, there will be a candy store and egg creams. Seriously.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should buy it if you can.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my recently launched Instagram.

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