The Junk Lady
chool started only a week ago, and I’m sick of it already. I hate my teacher, Miss Manning. Today she said (in front of the whole class! ) that she saw me on the street wearing lipstick. It’s not true and I don’t know why she did it. And then she laughed! I was so embarrassed. Seventh grade was a dream. I had Mr. Shea, my first man teacher. He was so nice. He was my home room and English teacher.
I can’t wait until I graduate this year and go to High School. I can’t decide between Performing Arts or Hunter High. We have to sew our graduation dresses by hand. White pique with a big collar. My big sister, Vivian said she’d take me out to buy a pair of white shoes to match, with Cuban heels. She’s a lot like mother, always polishing her nails and looking in the mirror. I’m not beautiful, like Vivian. Mother says I look just like my father’s side of the family and, to make matters worse, I have feet just like his. Mrs. Herskowitz says I’m a tomboy, because I like to play in the street with the boys. Girl’s games are so boring. Who wants to push a doll carriage around when you can play stickball?
Boys are weird, though. Frankie Martin tried to kiss me underwater in Cascades Pool on
Saturday. The next day, when I went out to play stickball with the boys, as usual, he looked at me with a funny expression on his face and said, “You can’t play, you’re a girl!” And that’s in spite of the fact that I can hit two sewers.
Mrs. Anhalt, the sewing teacher, made us all get up in front of the classroom to be measured. I was so embarrassed when she told us our chest measurements out loud; mine was only twenty-nine and a half inches. God, why are teachers so mean?
Well, it’s a gorgeous day, indian summer. I wonder why it’s called that? The calendar has a beautiful photo of a farm on it. All the trees have gold, crimson or lemon yellow leaves. Reminds me of Aunt Fanny’s farm in Pennsylvania. It sure doesn’t look like Sheridan Avenue! All we have are rows of gray apartment buildings staring at more rows of gray apartment buildings across the street, looking like soldiers ready to do battle. Not a tree in sight. Because of mother’s allergies, we can’t have any plants or flowers in our apartment. And going to the park on Jerome Avenue will never be the same, since that creep showed us his thing and all of Terry’s hair fell out. Now she has to walk around with a kerchief on her head. My mother cut some of my hair and pasted it on Terry’s forehead for bangs, but it doesn’t look that good. Can’t wait until the bell rings. Someone wrote on my inkwell cover, “To those who died, waiting for the bell to ring.” It looks like a tombstone. Barry just raised his hand to go to the bathroom and Miss Manning hands him one little piece of toilet paper. The war has been over for months, but everything is still rationed.
At last, the bell rings and I walk the one block home. My dog, Peggy, is waiting for me in front of Mrs. Kupferberg’s candy store on the corner. At least somebody is glad to see me. There’s Old Lady Greenberg, hiding behind her lace curtains, watching my every move. She’s got nothing better to do then lie in wait for us kids to do something wrong. “Just vait ‘til I tell your mother on you!” She should have been a detective. Or even better, a teacher!
When I get home, I know exactly what to expect: Mother will be lying down with another one of her allergy attacks, smoking cigarettes. I’ll go to the kitchen and grab a glass of milk and four or five slices of Wonder bread. Mother will say, “Get your hands out of the refrigerator; you’re eating me out of house and home!” Or, “Jesus, she takes the food right out of my mouth!” Then, she’ll say, “Lolly, go to the store.” Sometimes it’s “Go to Gold’s and get a quarter pound sliced American cheese. Charge it.” Or, “Go to the candy store and buy a pack of Pall Mall’s and an astrology magazine.”
This time it’s, “Go to the Junk Lady and buy me three pairs of nylon stockings.” Mother sometimes works as a waitress, rather, “goes to business,” as she put it, especially to our neighbors. She always dresses very carefully. She wears expensive high-heeled shoes and always wears a hat and gloves. In the winter, she wears a coat trimmed with fox fur on the collar and hem. During the war, when nylon stockings were unavailable, mother tinted her legs, drawing an imaginary seam down the back with an eyebrow pencil. Now that the war is over, you can buy nylons again, but they’re very fragile. Mother says they know how to make stockings that don’t run, but all the bastards care about is making profits. When mother gets a run in her stocking, I get sent to the Junk Lady to buy another pair.
“Are you going, or do I have to tell you again?” Mother’s voice is angry, as usual.
“Okay, after I finish eating,” I reply, pouring myself another glass of milk. Why am I so starving all the time? Frankly, I’m not anxious to go to the Junk Lady. It’s definitely not one of my favorite errands. She’s really crazy, and so is her whole family. Her husband always stays in the back where they live and plays the violin all day. Her kids, a boy and a girl, go to P.S. 90, but they’re not in my class. They are always together, holding hands, and never talk to anyone, just stare and look scared all the time. After school, they never play with any kids, but go straight home to the back of the store.
Mother tells me exactly what kind of stockings, and gives me the money. Then she’ll say something like, “Be careful. If you lose the money, don’t come home, ever.” Or, “Money doesn’t grow on trees, make sure you get the right change.”
I take the money and Peggy follows me down the street. I turn the corner at 165th Street and walk down the hill towards the Junk Lady’s shop. The first building is where my grandmother’s apartment is on the corner. She and Mother don’t get along at all, because Pop was the first one in the family to marry outside his religion. What’s worse is that we have a Christmas tree every year. It’s pretty pathetic, though; a little fake, white tree . Last Christmas, Vivian and I painted nuts silver and strung them on the tree, so it didn’t look too bad. After each Christmas, mother wraps it up in a blanket and puts it away in the closet until the next year. My grandma likes my cousin Leah better than me, and I figure it’s because I’m not Jewish. When she sees Leah, she gushes, “Layila, Layila!”
Next door is the Jewish butcher and the Luncheonette on the next corner at Sherman Avenue. Sandy Stein told me that all the streets in our neighborhood were named after Civil War generals. He reads a lot like me, especially History. I told him that he streets must be all named after northern generals, because there is no Lee Street. Across Sherman is the delicatessen owned by the Fat Family - father, mother and two daughters. all looking like Humpty Dumpty. I don’t know their real names, but everyone calls them the Fat Family. You can’t blame them, though, working in a delicatessen.
On days when mother works as a waitress, she gives me money to buy lunch, and I go to the deli. I treat myself to a Pepsi, a hot-dog with mustard and sauerkraut, and a knish. Then I’m stuffed. Next is the dancing school where I take tap and ballet from Mrs. Glickman. Across Grant Avenue, the first shop is the bakery, the scene of one of mother’s favorite triumphs, “How I got Revenge.” The woman waited on someone else, even though she walked in after mother. Mother doesn’t say a word, then proceeds to order a whole bunch of stuff. She loves to tell this story in great detail: “A sliced rye, a half-dozen bagels, a coffee cake...” Then, when she orders “everything” in the store and the woman rings up the bill, mother says, with a sweet smile on her face, “I changed my mind,” and walks out of the store. That’s my mother! I’m standing in front of the bakery, and the smell of freshly baked cakes and cookies is excruciatingly delicious. I wonder if this is where Renée’s mother buys her cookies. My favorite cake is Charlotte Russe. It’s a little paper crown with a thin yellow cake and tons of whipped cream with a maraschino cherry on top. Heaven. I’m in no rush to go to the Junk Lady and I just stand there, dreaming about Charlotte Russe. But in a minute, another image comes to my mind, the boy I met yesterday.
My friend Terry and I were climbing trees in the empty lot on Carroll Place. That’s where we met Emil. I fell and cut my knee. Terry had to go home for lunch. Her mother is always nagging her to eat. I wish my mother were Jewish. Emil took me to his house and washed my knee. Then he made us tons of toast and butter. He’s different from the boys on Sheridan Avenue. He lives with his family upstairs in an old two-family house. I met his mother and sister, who both have the same name, Connie. It’s really Concetta, because they’re Italian. His mother has a big lump on her neck. Emil tells me it’s a goiter. There’s a painting of Jesus on the cross in the living room over the piano. Emil plays “Sorrento” for me, and I’m feeling happy for a change. I wish I had a piano. Emil’s mother says I can come anytime and play the piano. Their door is never locked. I promise to come back. Suddenly, I can’t wait to go back, and play the piano...and see Emil.
There’s the Irish bar on the corner of Morris Avenue. I went there once with Vivian to get a pizza “to go”. I didn’t see Mr. McBride or Mr. Mulligan who live across the street, although I heard that they practically live there. Is that why they have so many kids? I don’t know. I heard the Italians drink also. But only lots of wine with their spaghetti, which they eat every night. My dad’s Jewish and he likes to drink Rheingold beer sometimes. Mr. Gold has the photos of the contestants for “Miss Rheingold” hung up over the counter in his store. Last year I picked the one who won. I always pick a brunette because the blondes never win. On holy days, dad will buy wine, but it has to be Manischevitz, don’t ask me why. Mostly, though, he likes egg creams or a Doctor Brown’s at the candy store. Sometimes, he’ll send me to the store with an empty milk bottle and fifteen cents to bring home a malted milk. Mother sometimes calls the liquor store on Morris Avenue to tell them I’m coming for a bottle of rye, which they’re not supposed to sell me because I’m under age. I never see her drinking, but sometimes I can smell it on her breath, like now, when she is sending me to the store for stockings. So, I guess Polish people drink, but not where anyone can see them. I don’t know. I don’t understand why people like to drink, anyway. A soda tastes so much better.
Here’s the Junk Lady’s store, so I might as well get it over with. You wouldn’t even know it was a store, just by looking at it. There’s a little sign, “Dry Goods” handwritten just over the doorbell, that’s all. It’s really an apartment on the street, like ours, with the front room made into a shop. I can hear the Junk Lady’s husband playing the violin. It sounds really sad. I hope someday I can play like that. I’ve been taking violin lessons for a few months. My mother’s friend Pearl gave her an old violin. The next thing I knew I was taking lessons from a man who came to our school once a week. I really like playing the violin, except that everyone in my family makes fun of me when I practice. Sometimes I wonder if I really don’t belong to this family. Maybe I was adopted. But then, there’s my father’s feet... I have to ring the bell about five times. I know the routine: she never answers the door right away, you just have to be persistent. No matter how many times I go there, it always gives me the creeps. They are so weird, they belong in “Tales of the Crypt,” which is my favorite comic, after “Wonder Woman.” But then, I start to think about how everyone in my neighborhood is kinda nuts, especially my family and Frieda Martin’s mother, who chases her down the street with a homemade tomahawk when she gets mad at her.
I ring the bell again and suddenly the curtain on the glass window parts a few inches and two black eyes stare out at me and a voice whispers nervously, “Vot you vant?”
“My mother needs stockings,” I reply cheerfully, trying not to sound threatening.
“Go avay. No stockings!”
I remind myself that it’s the Junk Lady and I know she’s crazy, because she says this every time I come to buy something. So, I try again.
“Please, my mother sent me for some stockings. Please let me in, just for a minute.”
After more pleading, she finally relents.
“Alright already, but be kvick. I haven’t got all day!”
The curtain is drawn and I hear sounds of the turning of locks and sliding of bolts. The door opens to the sunlight and I step inside. I’m never completely prepared for the rancid odor that pervades, like overcooked broccoli, or cabbage. I avoid looking directly at the Junk Lady’s face, and its terrified expression, as if she expects not a customer, but to be robbed or murdered. She turns and yells something in Yiddish to the two frightened children seated at a table in the rear. Then she walks back and shuts the door. I realize the violin playing has stopped. The Junk Lady is wearing the same black dress I always see her in, covered with a flowered apron. She goes behind the counter and is so tiny that all I can see are her head and those two black eyes that are like deep, bottomless pools that can see everything, and anything that swims in them is sucked down. It takes a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. On the wall behind the counter, from floor to ceiling, are boxes. At both ends of the counter are bolts of cloth, stacked up like dead bodies to the ceiling. The place feels like a morgue. The Junk Lady seems to be a disembodied head. I remember a story from “Tales from the Crypt” about a head that terrorizes a town, searching for its body. I feel my spine tingling and all I can think of now is getting out of there.
“I’m vaiting, little maidela, you should tell me vot you need?”
“My mother wants three pairs of stockings. Size eight and a half long, sheer and gun metal.”
The Junk Lady steps up on a stool and reaches for a slim white box high up on the wall.
“Here you are. Give me a dollar-fifty and take them home to your mother.”
I put the money on the counter. Then I hear the violin again. It sounds even sadder than before, like someone crying. I feel like crying. I turn away, wanting to escape to the freedom of the street.
“Vait, kindela, I have something for you.” The Junk Lady reaches below the counter and places a cookie in my hand. It’s a bakery cookie, just like the kind that Renée’s mother gives her.
“Thank you,” I stammer.
The Junk lady rolls down the sleeves of her dress and says, “Life is full of suffering. So, vy shouldn”t you have a cookie?”
When I get home, I decide to ask my mother about something I’ve wondered a long time.
“Mom, why does the Junk Lady have numbers tattooed on her arm?”
This time, my mother actually looks at me when I ask her something. “God damn! She must have been in a Nazi concentration camp.”
“Is that why she”s crazy, mom?”
“Could be, could be,” says my mother, taking a long draw on her Pall Mall. “Anyway, “ she adds, crushing her cigarette in the ashtray, “sometimes you have to be a little crazy to keep from going insane.”
Then I get the insane impulse to ask my mother if that”s why she’s crazy. But, I don”t dare. I really don”t understand what she means, though. Just another one of those things that grown-ups say, I guess. Maybe, someday I’ll figure it out for myself. Maybe when I go to high school, or college. Maybe I’ll figure out a lot of things, I hope. Life can be so confusing when you”re just a kid.
I know one thing, though. I really enjoyed that cookie!