Monthly Archives: August 2011

It’s Not Starbucks


AFter all that blah blah blah complaining about unemployment, I do it. I get a summer job. It’s not my dream job, but, you might say, it’s not Starbucks. I don’t have to wear a uniform (I don’t really do hats) or pretend I don’t understand when people say “medium” (“I’m sorry. We don’t carry that size. Perhaps you mean a grande??”). At the hourly rate local crossing guards make, it also pays a bit more per hour than Starbucks–although, as I’m soon to discover, there are many hours (“Be here an hour early to test the incoming students, but DON’T PUT THAT HOUR ON YOUR TIMESHEET WHATEVER YOU DO!!” “Oh, did we mention there’s a faculty development meeting today? Bring a lunch, and expect to stay and extra hour and a half or so. Oh, and DON’T PUT IT ON YOUR TIMESHEET!”) that are simply unpaid. So perhaps not.

When I read the job description, it sounded glamorous and exciting. I wonder if I misread it. I don’t have the ad, so I’ll try to reconstruct it from memory. It went something like this:

Italian students will be coming to America to discover, imbibe, inhale, and digest American culture. Some other Europeans are coming, too. For the small sum of 6000 € (plus airfare), they will: Shop! Go bowling! Visit the White House! See a Broadway play! Hit the mean streets of Philly! Eat hamburgers and fries! Stroll along the Baltimore Inner Harbor! Cry at Ground Zero! Spend lots of money! Tell their friends and brothers and sisters about their experience so that they, in turn, can  add many more euros to our coffers!

Teacher of English: You can be a part of this experience. You can impart to these FOBs what it is to love the land God blessed. You can teach them what it is to speak the language of our beloved country. You can fill their mouths with clichés and their heads with stereotypes. You can’t join them for that Broadway play (though feel free to play youtube videos from the production in your classroom), or live out your little Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr or Fay Wray/colossal gorilla romantic fantasies at the top of the Empire State Building (ditto the youtubes) with this job, but you can do something far more important. You can lock yourself in a classroom with them for 3 hours/morning–don’t come late! don’t leave early!–don’t take more than 10 minutes for a break!–and do something or other with them (we don’t really care what, but their parents aren’t going to pay for them to just go sightseeing. We are calling this edutainment, people!!)(ps: We recommend youtube videos).

Will you be paid for this job? Oh yes! Of course you are! Don’t you worry! Well, OK, we’re only going to pay you a pittance (hey–that 6000 € is ours), but just think about it: This is the opportunity of a lifetime.

YOU can give your students:


And so I did.

How to fill 3 hours of class time for a class with no objectives, no curriculum, and no rules (apart from those pertaining to the number of hours to be in class)? There are youtube videos . . . and then there are cupcakes. I filled my students up on Americana both ways. Also, I attempted to improve their English. Which is, I think, what they were there for.



Academic Starf*$er

Cornel West in The Matrix Reloaded

Cornel West in The Matrix Reloaded

We do the post-Irene tour about town. First, the library. A sign on the door promises goodies: “We’ve got power! We’ve got coffee! We’ve got internet!” We run into the decidedly unwashed masses there (most people have been out of power a good 48 hours by now). They are standing and sitting, some squatting, their laptops and iPhones or crackberries plugged in and charging. Among the unwashed, The Scientist, clean (bli ayin hara–we have been blessed with power!). He is as surprised as we are; he had come to work, not play. The kids, on the other hand, are thrilled, and we all hang out together until The Scientist announces he is going, in his words, “somewhere you are not.” We say our goodbyes, and the kids and I continue our tour.

We are surveying trees down, stores closed and open, branches in the act of being cleared, and I, ever the peppy tour guide, am narrating our journey (“Oooh, look, that man is stepping over those fallen branches, see that?”) . . . and then the kids begin:

“I’m huuuuuuuuuuuuuungry.”

“I’m tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiired.”

“I’m thiiiiiiiiiiiiiirsty.”

And finally:

“I. NEED!! TO!!! POO!!!!!!!!”

Time to go home.

But Cool J refuses. From the depths of his bowels–forgive the pun–he cries, “I have to poo RIGHT NOW!!!!!!”

So we grace Starbucks with our presence. As has, it turns out, Cornel West.

Now, I would hate to be called a Starfucker. I have gone out of my way in the past to not seem like a starfucker at all. Like that time I saw Meg Ryan in Washington Square Park and I followed her and took pictures of her until the security guard came over to me to give me a warning–well, I totally didn’t try to talk her up and say something stupid like, “OMG MEG RYAN!! Like, When Harry Met Sally is one of my fave movies EVER!!” I was cool and casual, apart from the picture-taking/stalking, and that was my first month in NYC! Or when I was at Bond St back when it opened, and Cameron Diaz was there and these embarrassing dorky guys we picked up kept asking her to take pictures with them, saying it was their friends’ birthday, and I didn’t dare pull the same schtick. Instead, I got to exchange a great eye-rolling with my pal Cam. Very cool. Very caj.

But Cornel West made me turn awkward. I might have blushed. I might have giggled randomly. I might have pretended to look in every direction but his. And no, it was not because of his cameos in The Matrix II & III. It was his mind! His genius!

I quickly planned out our conversation:

“Good job!”

“Pardon me, young lady?”

“I mean, you did a really good job on that article the other day in The New York Times! It was very thoughtful and engaging, and I particularly appreciated your invoking Rabbi Heschel in your discussion of Martin Luther King Jr. You were talking about our failure to realize King’s dream, but by using Heschel, you implicitly reminded us of the incredible possibilities inherent in that oh so important relationship between blacks and Jews (possibilities still, alas; they too, unrealized).”

“Why, thank you. It is lovely to meet you, Miss–“


“Miss Princess.”

We shake hands. We part (he has brilliant books to write, presidents to hang out with, inspiring music to record; I have to go home and scrub Cool J’s whole body raw since he just pooed in a grody public bathroom).

MLK Jr and R. Heschel at The Selma Civil Rights March (1965)

How it really went down was like this: We walk toward Cornel West’s table. I am starstruck, and time moves slowly. We are now at his table. He looks up. Cool J screams: “MAMA, HURRY UP!!!!! I AM ABOUT TO POO IN MY PANTS!!!!!!!!!”

So much for the brief but deep conversation between CW and PP.

*              *                     *                   *                  *                     *

The chance arises once more, however, on our departure. Cornel West is leaving as we are. Cool J runs ahead as I maneuver  the doublestroller through the thick Starbucks crowd, while LL is singing Super Mario songs obliviously banging into me and the stroller and strangers. Cornel West patiently walks behind us. Cool J gets to the door first, and he struggles to get it and hold it open. LL walks through first. Then Baby MoFo in the stroller, and me pushing him along. Finally, Cornel West–who pauses, smiles and nods at Cool J, and says: “Good job.”


Oberservation: Dressing the part in the Land of Duddy Kravitz


Duddy Kravitz and the unfortunate Yvette. He stood for the money-grubbing Sec Jews, she for the anti-Semitic but victimized French Canadians. Missing only in this picture of Laurentian life is the Orthodox icon, who in Duddy's time and by Richler's reckoning was not a young mom or dad with a dozen kids filling the playground by Lac des Sables, but the old man whose time was almost up. In the book, the country house Jews were made up of "the short husbands with their outrageously patterned sports shirts arm in arm with purring wives too obviously full for slacks, the bawling kids with tripledecker icecream cones, the squealing teenagers, and the grandfather with his beard and black hat."

Bullet-proof stockings, silk shmatas on their heads or pared-down-for-the-summer shtreimels, clothes that are long, loose, and often quite lux, the Chasidisshe Jews here wear many layers, despite the hot, humid summer air.

Cool J and a Chabad camp

LL among the 'lidges

Mini putting with a maxi family: our boys wait patiently behind a family of 11

Not so the Sec Jews. These are the ones that got to camp with LL and Cool J. Some are Shomer Shabbos, some strictly Kosher (some less so. Says one camp mom to another: “I was going to join the kids hiking today, but I’m fasting, so it’s probably not a good idea.” Replies the other: “Oh, for Tu Be’shvat?” The first: “Not quite.”). But all are Sec, surely, beside the Bobovers and Satmars, for whom they appear not even as Jews but rather a bunch of shiksas and sheygatzes. This group is made up, primarily, of ladies polished and groomed (their men, for the most part, back in the city, earning the money for that polishing and grooming). In their athletic apparel, they appear poised, at all moments, for a jog along Lac des Sables or yoga sur la plage.

Meanwhile, the French Canadians, with cigarettes dangling from their lips and peroxided hair, hold court by the lakeside casse-croute in their string bikinis and heels, calling to their one or two children (such measly families–such a switch from Duddy’s time–now the Bobover kids dominate with their 12 or 15 or 18 children, and the Secs don’t do badly with their 3 or 5 or 6). “Loic! Aurélie!” The children, boys and girls, wear their hair long, and these same children, boys and girls, are often only clothed below the waist.

And so, in the land where people are supposed to be divided into linguistic groups–Anglophone, Francophone, Allophone–they are instead separated by their apparel: the Chasids wear a lot, the Sec Jews wear Lulus, the French wear little.


Calling Mom


PP: “I heard you called a bunch of times. What’s going on?”

Mom: “What’s going on there? What took you so long to call back? I was so worried!”

PP: “Why?”

Mom: “I had no idea why you weren’t calling back! I thought something had happened to you or the boys!!!”

PP: “Nope. Just busy.”

Mom: “Too busy to call your mother?”

PP: “Sorry, Mom. I’m just trying to enjoy the country. I’m, you know, running, biking, taking the baby to the lake and the boys to camp . . . Also, I’m revising my manuscript.”

Mom: “What manuscript?”

PP: “The book I’ve been working on for the past 3 years.”

Mom: “What book?”

PP: “Don’t I talk to you like–every day?”

Mom: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

PP: “Forget it. Anyway, it’s nice here. Quiet.”

Mom: “Do you know anyone there?”

PP: “Actually, today I saw a woman at camp I know from way back. Her kids also come here.”

Mom: “Who?”

PP: “Oh, you wouldn’t know her.”

Mom: “How do you know her?”

PP: “She went to Hebrew High with me.”

Mom: “And she recognized you?”

PP: “Why wouldn’t she? I look the same.”

Mom: “As when you were 5?”

PP: “I wasn’t 5 in high school.”

Mom: “What’s her name?”

PP: “Elisa, but you really wouldn’t know her.” (Mom’s memory is notoriously sieve-like)

Mom: “I remember her.”

PP: “No you don’t.”

Mom: “Does she have a twin?”

PP: “Oddly, yes. But I still think you don’t know her.”

Mom (proudly): “I do. You took ballet with her and her sister.”

PP (sighing): “Her twin is a brother, and you are thinking of Amy and Adina, who were in my class in nursery school.”

Mom: “Weren’t they at Etz Chaim with you for kindergarten?”

PP: “I didn’t go to Etz Chaim.”

Mom: “Yes you did.”

PP: “I went to public school.”

Mom: “Don’t be ridiculous. I never sent you to public school. Dad–” (she calls my dad Dad. He calls her Ma).

PP: “Mom, I have class pictures. I remember my teachers’ names. I–“

Mom: “Daddy confirmed it. You went to Etz Chaim.”

PP: “I did not go to Etz Chaim.”

Mom: “Your teacher was Mrs. Traub. I hear she’s unwell. I saw her brother. I told him you were in her kindergarten class at Etz Chaim.”

PP: “That was your other daughter’s second grade teacher at Hebrew Day.”

Mom: “You have nothing to say about her being sick?”

PP: “I barely remember her. I’m sorry to hear she’s sick.”

Mom: “Hmmph.”

PP: “Mom, I have to go. I want to take the baby into town.”

Mom: “That’s it?”

PP: “That’s it.”

Mom: “Fine. If that’s all you have to say to me–“

PP: “The baby is very restless.”

Mom: “You could call me sometimes. It would be nice if I knew anything about your life these days.”

PP: “I’ll keep that in mind.”