Chanukah in Long Island
Saturday, December 20 2003
This afternoon Gretchen and I drove to Long Island to visit with Linda, Gretchen's first cousin once-removed. The once-removed in this case places Linda in the preceding generation. To further clarify what I mean, Linda's children, all of them grown men, are Gretchen's second cousins. Linda lives with her husband Steven in a huge house a third of the way out on Long Island, in one of many residential neighborhoods surrounded by a dismal forest of shoulder-to-shoulder strip malls.
The most obvious thing about Long Island is that it's a geographic dead-end, and once you're there, the only way out by land is to drive through New York City. This might not seem like a big deal, but in practice it gives Long Island an inherently suffocating quality. When you've gotten past Queens and out onto "the Island," a dread wells up within your subconscious, which becomes uncomfortably aware that you're now trapped behind a buzzing, flickering barrier of road rage and frequent gridlock. Yet the only things Long Island has to offer its visitors are crowded beaches, white-flight family values, and endless American inauthenticity in all its ahistorical saturation-marketed repulsiveness.
Getting to our destination (near Deer Park) didn't take long. I did most of the driving on the way there, averaging 80 miles per hour for much of the New York Thruway. The only major impediment to high speeds were the occasions when traffic stacked up behind a slowpoke in the left lane. It occurred to me that someone needs to write a book called Driving in the Left Lane for Dummies. [I just did a Google search on that phrase and it seems nobody else has ever thought of it, unlike another notion which came to me the other day, "There is nothing to hate but hate itself."] There was the usual mild gridlock on the Trans-Bronx Expressway and (once Gretchen took over) construction delays on I-495 out into the Ugly Island.
Not only was Linda's house huge, but it also appeared to be perfect. No nailheads popped through the drywall, no walls strayed from plumb and no corners were anything but 90 degrees. All the finishing details throughout the house appeared to be the most expensive kind available. Why use marble when there's more expensive limestone to be had? In a quick tour of only one of the floors, Linda showed me the traditional Victorian living room where nobody ever goes as well as the modern living room dominated by a huge-screen teevee. There was a French-style dining room in addition to the smaller eating area in the massive kitchen. Speakers throughout the house piped in Muzak relentlessly.
These touches, particularly those with early-80s-style techy qualities, had all been spearheaded by Linda's husband Steven, who takes enormous pride in his work on the house. He's one of the lucky few Republicans who votes in accordance with his own financial self-interest. When he's not working on his lavish castle or off at the Diebold machines voting for like-minded Republicans, his profession is to do the bidding of a massive multinational corporation, the modern kind that effectively suppresses its workers and even, on occasion, convinces them to vote Republican (against their own financial self-interest).
In keeping with the lavish appointments, there was a hedonistic quality to Linda's household that hadn't been evident in the homes of people closer to Gretchen on her family tree. Straight away, Linda wanted to know what we wanted to drink, and the list of options she provided didn't include a single non-alcoholic item. That's the classy way to offer drinks - if somebody wants something non-alcoholic, he should have to ask "Do you have any ginger ale?"
Even before getting us our drinks, Linda showed us the kitchen table and its rich array of menorahs (or, technically-speaking, Chanukiot). When Linda said how much she loved menorahs, I knew I'd brought the right present. I had no idea how crazy she'd be about my copper pipe creation, but she loved it. It wasn't just that she loved it as a casually-observant Jew; she also loved it as an artistic creation from a fellow artist. (When not working 60 hour weeks as a professional grandmother and homemaker, Linda is a painter and printmaker.)
Meanwhile Steven had driven to a nearby assisted-living home to pick up Linda's mother, Gretchen's Great Aunt Helen, the only surviving member of that grandmotherly generation. She's nearly 93 years old and, though physically frail, her mind is everything it's always been.
The other members of the family started showing up soon after that. These included Linda's son Daniel and his wife Mindy. Mindy is interesting because she's a Korean who was raised from birth in a Long Island Jewish family, so she talks and acts completely differently from the way she looks. Another son and his wife showed up, and everybody brought their kids, so the evening quickly turned into a riot of unChristian family values.
Things really got going with the Chaunkah gift exchange. For obvious reasons, the giving was mostly bestowed upon the kids, who were lavished by all parties with an obscene cornucopia of gifts. Mind you, these were young kids (the oldest being four), and they couldn't possibly know the difference between what was in fashion and what was "so yesterday," yet they were being lavished with precisely those things being most heavily-marketed for this particular holiday season. Disappointingly, none of these toys left anything to these kids' imagination. One of the dolls was so chock-full of servo-motors that it could actually wrinkle its freakish rubberized brow. I wonder if the neurological capacity for imagining someone expressing surprise atrophies in someone who grows up playing with such quasi-cyborgs.
After the kids tore through their overpackaged gifts and experienced the closest thing to orgasm they'll know for the next ten years, there was a token exchange of adult presents. Somebody had bought Linda a three-disk Neil Diamond collection, and Gretchen and I lobbied hard to have it put on immediately (thereby ending the onslaught of Muzak). As faded 70s crooners go, you could do a lot worse than Neil Diamond. I'm always happy when "Sweet Caroline" or "Kentucky Woman" get played on an oldies station. Besides, Gretchen knew one of Neil's personal bodyguards back when she lived in Wisconsin. He was a big guy, slathered with tattoos and shot full of piercings. According to him, Neil smokes "a lot of pot."
Dinner for the children took place around tiny little tables brought into the kitchen. They didn't have any icky vegetables to contend with, unless you count the potatoes used to make their freedom fries. With this they were served tiny pieces of what appeared to be chicken.
Us adults took our Chaunukah dinner in the fancy freedom-style dining room. The meal was rich in enormous slabs of beef, served with greasy latkes, apple sauce, and asparagus. It was American comfort food served the way Americans like their food: large portions mostly unchanged (except in terms of temperature) from the way they'd been found in the market. Everyone there except me was a Jew, but there wasn't even a token effort to keep things kosher.
Since Gretchen is a vegetarian, Linda had cooked her a special vegetarian dish, the one that carnivores most often cook for their weird vegetarian guests: eggplant parmesan. Unfortunately, Gretchen has such a strong aversion to eggplant that there was on way she'd be able to eat any of it. But she had to find a way to avoid hurting Linda's feelings. So she hatched a conspiracy with Linda's son Daniel and made it seem like the eggplant was slowly being eaten. I also provided some cover because it hadn't been known whether or not I was a vegetarian, but in the end I decided to eat beef.
The reaction of Linda's family to my unexpected beef eating was sort of what you'd expect. They were delighted. Daniel even declared that his opinion of me had just gone up a few notches. (You can guess what this says about his regard for Gretchen's vegetarianism.) This was similar, I think, to the way a drinker reacts when a normally tee-totatalling friend elects to drink a glass of wine. You see, implicit in abstemious behavior is a moral judgement, and nobody likes to be judged for whatever their hedonism happens to be. Smokers hate socializing with non-smokers, drinkers hate hitting bars with Mormons, and ham sandwich aficionados detest doing lunch with Jews and Muslims. But in those cases where such socializing happens, it's always an enormous relief to find that assumed-to-be abstemious friend actually enjoys whatever your form of hedonism happens to be. (I'll never forget that burst of joy I felt when a Muslim co-worker on the LaunchUK project ordered himself a Corona at a West LA bar.)
It wasn't just that there was a lot of beef, but it was served rare, with discernible blood content. I'm no vegetarian, but I'm not really that kind of carnivore either. I sort of choked it down, repulsed and intrigued at the same time. Linda twisted my arm and saw to it that I had seconds. I ended up with such a large lump of muscle in my stomach that its digestion quickly became my body's single biggest priority. My eyes clouded over and I wished I could go some place and hibernate for a couple of weeks. The food, the gifts, the lavish house, it all seemed to grow out of the same philosophy: why use the resources of a mere 500 Bangladeshis when you could be using the resources of 5000 Bangladeshis?
I sat there at the kitchen table, unable to move while others got up and attended to things between the main course and dessert. Great Aunt Helen was there, and we talked about various things. I said something about the ugliness of Long Island, and how it reflected a real failure of zoning ordinances. I told about how things had been in Europe, where towns end abruptly and are surrounded by unpopulated farmland. I hadn't really wanted to talk about travel; I was just drawing from my experience in other places. But then Helen started talking about the Mexican cruises she'd been on with her husband many many years ago, back around the time Davy Crockett was foolishly defending the Alamo.
After dessert (I only ate a token amount of icecream), Steven
took me on a tour of both the basement and the upstairs. The basement is just emerging from months of construction, and now it's full of things like storage closets, new air conditioning ducts, and even a posh climate-controlled wine cellar. The biggest room down there is a brightly-lit studio for Linda to work on her printmaking projects. Then we went upstairs and Steven showed me all the fancy stuff up there, particularly the massive jacuzzi-style bathtub in the master bedroom. Gretchen later told me that this tub is so big that it never actually gets used. My assignment during this tour was to make all the appropriate grunts of approval and jealousy. Periodically I'd respond to something Steven would show me by mentioning how I'd tackled a similar problem in my house, but I could tell he wasn't especially interested.
Gretchen drove nearly all the way home, and I even dozed off a little along the way.
For linking purposes this article's URL is:feedback
previous | next