Omir the Storyteller

Stories. Music. Politics. Technology. Baseball. Friends. Family. Potrzebie.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Princesses, Benihana and Mariano Rivera

Family; actually, all over the map

You may not know it unless you live here, but Seattle is quite the theater town. Back in the day producers used to try out their shows bound for Broadway in places like Philadelphia, New Haven and Boston; these days, tryouts are as likely to occur in Los Angeles, Chicago or Toronto. Or at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theater, where the Tony-award winning musical Hairspray got its start (and where we saw it when it returned here last fall).

Tonight we got to see a Broadway-bound musical called Princesses. It's built around the idea of an all-girls' boarding school doing a musical version of A Little Princess, but there's a lot more to it than that. It started out a bit slow, but built up steam as it went along and ended up quite nicely. Check it out when it hits the Great White Way.

We got a show-before-the-show at Benihana. It's a Japanese restaurant, where the shtick is that the chef prepares the dinner right at your table. Each table seats eight (we were there with two other parties) and features a large -- I mean large -- grill where the chef, knives whirling and spatula flashing, grills the vegetables, grills and chops the meats, and mixes up the fried rice right in front of you, carrying on a patter as he goes. "Let's see, you have filet mignon," he said as he made sure he had our order straight, "you have hibachi scallops -- you have a Happy Meal . . . " He then butterflied one of the shrimp he was cooking, split its tail and sat it on what had once been its neck. "See?" he pronounced. "A bunny rabbit." He then flipped the "bunny rabbit" onto the plate of one of the members of the party. "With your Happy Meal, you get a toy."

While waiting in the lobby after the meal for the female members of the group to finish doing whatever it is the women do when they go en masse into the powder room, I looked at the pictures on the wall. Bill Gates' picture is on there with one of the chefs, as is Brooke Shields'. Detlef Schremp is there, overshadowing two of the staff.

There is an inordinate number of baseball players on that wall. I would guess that Benihana is something a little exotic, but available in most of the cities ballplayers travel to, so when you sit down to a meal there you get something special, but not surprising in a bad way. Ken Griffey Junior and Senior are on there, as is Dan Wilson. Some of the players are instantly recognizable. Jamie Moyer is there, though obviously younger. Ivan Rodriguez has a big old grin on his face.

The two biggest surprises on the wall were Edgar Martinez and Mariano Rivera. Edgar is there with his son, age about two, and it's hard to recognize him. He's much younger in the picture, and doesn't have the handsome, square cut and curly mop we came to recognize in his later years with the Mariners. And Mariano Rivera . . . well, there are several Yankees on that wall, and there's no mistaking Derek Jeter, for instance. But I always thought of Rivera as "the zombie." He has that perpetual unsettling "dead" look on his face. I call him The Zombie. If I were facing him in the batter's box, he'd give me the willies. But in this picture, he's all smiles, and a lovely smile to boot. You wouldn't think it's the same guy.

There's no deep philosophical point to this entry. Just a note about how people often look different when we see them "out of context." I have that problem with people who know me from church, for instance, but it takes me a minute to recognize them. I have no idea why that is.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

That does it


With the publication here of "Passover In Hell," the story that to date has generated the greatest amount of positive reaction of any I've done, I have now posted all of the Sunday Griot stories to this weblog. Break out the champagne, or sparkling cider, or the Cherry Seven-Up Plus Calcium (which I have just discovered, and like very much).

What this means, I'm not sure. I will continue to post stories from Sunday Griot as they're written, but I am thinking about doing some original stories that might not fit neatly into the Sunday Griot concept of stories with progressive messages.

Just to give you an example, in last Sunday's story I dropped a bunch of hints about Stan's life. I mentioned that on his way from the Midwest to Pennsylvania he picked up a dog and a banjo. Today I took my granddaughter to the zoo. Getting away from the computer with nothing to do but watch her enjoy herself gave me some skull time to work on the story of just how Stan learned to play the banjo (and a little bit about where he got it). If I can get it whipped into shape with a proper beginning and end, now that I have something of a middle, Stan Learns To Play The Banjo would be a good candidate for publication here. It doesn't directly teach tolerance, or peace, or freedom or justice or equality or caring for one another or any of the subtexts of the stories thus far, except insofar as it's the story of one man relating to those around him.

Perhaps there will be something more to this Stan guy than an excuse to get the dog where it could corner a burglar. If so, you'll hear about it here. That's really the proof of the pudding as far as good characters are concerned. They don't let you go. The best ones, in fact, can end up taking over and telling their stories through you. Or so I've been told by people who make money at this sort of thing.

Passover In Hell


It was a spring night, just after sundown, and a group of Jews had assembled together. This, however, was no ordinary assembly, nor was it a happy occasion. These men had been rounded up, separated from their families, and removed to camps far away from their homes.

It was 1944, and the Nazis had gathered them together in a concentration camp.

"Tonight the Passover begins," one of the men, a tailor named Mendel said.

"Goodness me," said Klein, a watchmaker. "And here we forgot to search the house for leaven." This bit of gallows humor brought chuckles from the others.

"I remember our seders when I was a child," said Mendel. "My father was a rabbi. He would take in a dozen, two dozen people who had nowhere else to celebrate. That plus our family. My mother would complain that he was going to feed us out of house and home, but she didn't really mean it."

"Shut up," said Baum, a silversmith from Dresden.

"What's the matter?" asked Stein, who had been a student at the university in Cologne.

"What's the matter?" Baum asked back. "Maybe you haven't noticed it, but we're not exactly free men here. We are in captivity as bad anything our forefathers in Egypt experienced. Maybe worse. We have no reason to celebrate the seder." He turned from the others. "That world is dead to us."

"It's only dead if we let it be dead," said another voice. Everyone turned toward him. The speaker was Rosenzweig, an American who had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time and was now interred here with the Germans and Poles and Dutch and others who had been rounded up. "It's only dead if we kill it."

Baum snorted and turned away from the group again.

"Let me tell you something I heard once," Rosenzweig said in his halting Yiddish, remembered as best he could from his immigrant parents who had encouraged him to learn English and supplemented by what he had learned in the camp. "In Rome there is an arch built to commemorate the victory over the Jews and the destruction of Solomon's temple."

"We know it," Mendel said.

"It shows our people being led off in chains and the spoils of victory, including the menorah. But down at the bottom, if you know where to look, someone has written 'Am Yisrael chai.'" They didn't have to be told what this means: "The people of Israel live."

"My grandfather told me once that we can sum up every Jewish holiday in this way:

'They tried to kill us.
We won.
Let's eat!'"

The others looked at Rosenzweig. They said nothing. Some just didn't know what to say.

Then they all turned back as quietly, Rosenzweig began to recite the seder service.

"Tsha!" Baum said. "Are you mad? They will kill us."

Rosenzweig stopped. "If you haven't noticed, we aren't doing so well already," he replied. "We are living on borrowed time. If I'm going to die, I'm going to die a Jew." And he began again.

Baum made again as if he would stop Rosenzweig, but Mendel held him back. Sssssh, his body language said. The American is right. Crazy, perhaps, but right. Let him continue.

Rosenzweig recited the Kiddush. He held up his hand, cupped as though it were holding a glass of wine, and mimed taking a drink. A few of the others joined him. They mimed eating the cucumber and washing their hands. They lit pretend candles. And as Rosenzweig was about to begin the cup of sanctification . . . he stopped. He couldn't remember the words.

After a moment, Mendel took up the ceremony, and from there they continued. Others recited different portions of the haggadah. Eight different men asked the Four Questions, once each in Hebrew and Yiddish. Baum himself asked "Why is this night different from all other nights?" in Yiddish. Klein, who had learned a bit of locksmithing in addition to his watchmaker's trade, even picked the lock on the barracks door, opened it a crack to invite the prophet Elijah in, then hurriedly closed and locked it again.

The ceremony continued to its end, with each man remembering the sounds and smells and tastes of the Passovers of days past. Then, when they finished the ceremony, a Chasidic Jew named Steinberg told the story of how the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidic Judaism, had laughed three times at a Sabbath. That story too involved a service where a poor couple had nothing to eat, no tablecloth, no candles to light. Just their love for the Lord and their love of each other.

And then, someone began to sing. Everyone turned, because they had never heard the voice before. The voice -- a beautiful tenor voice -- was coming from a man named Meyer. No one could remember him so much as speaking before except perhaps in answer to a direct order from a guard, much less singing. He finished the first verse, then turned to the others. "My father was a cantor in Rotterdam," he explained. "I had dreams of being a cantor myself, before . . . before all this. When I came here I decided there was no reason to sing anymore, and I fell silent. Tonight, I am going to sing." And he started the second verse. It was a simple song, one they all knew, so they all joined in. Then someone started another song, and they all sang some more. Even the ones who didn't know the words joined in as best they could and sang la-la-la to the rest.

Outside the barracks, a guard turned with a puzzled expression on his face, which quickly turned to anger. He ran toward the barracks, unlocked the door and threw it open. The singing stopped. "What are you Jewish fools doing?" the guard barked. "What can you canaries possibly have to sing about? Shut up and go to sleep."

The guard left and locked the door again. About a minute later the singing resumed, louder than before. This time the guard unlocked the door and cocked his revolver. "If I hear any more singing," he said, "I am going to start shooting you. Now STOP SINGING!" and he slammed the door.

This time the hesitation was a bit longer, but Rosenzweig started the singing again, and everyone joined in. The guard returned, threw open the door, and the singing continued. The guard watched for a moment as the men sang, and then closed the door behind him, knowing there was nothing he could do against such a show of faith.

The singing continued well into the night.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

A Small Act Of Kindness


Remember back with me to the 1930s . . . for all I know, Americans may soon know this time as the First Great Depression. Times were very hard, work was scarce, and many an honest man was reduced to going from door to door, looking for any work he could find to get money and food. Sometimes the money took second place.

One such man was a fellow by the name of Stan. Stan was in his mid-twenties, had been a farmhand, but when the dust storms took out the farms in Kansas and Oklahoma he was forced out onto the road like many other men. Some, like the Joads of The Grapes Of Wrath, went west to California. Stan went east, toward Georgia and the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Along the way he picked up a banjo, a few songs and stories, and a mongrel dog he called Ole Bill. But the stories behind those events will have to wait for another time.

Stan and Ole Bill made their way to the farm country of southern Pennsylvania. Along the way Stan picked peaches and apples, harvested some tobacco, and did occasional odd jobs, but for the most part they just walked, At night, if he was lucky, Stan would make it to a hobo camp where he and Ole Bill could pick up a couple of songs and share in some mulligan stew. Often, though, he wasn't so lucky, and there were many days he would sleep outside and hope it didn't rain.

He made it to Pennsylvania just in time to miss the harvest, so he went to the old standby: knocking on doors to see if anyone wanted work in exchange for food for him and Ole Bill. The first two doors he knocked on stayed closed. The third was shut in his face. The fourth added the flourish of a shotgun and a threat to shoot the two of them if the owner of the shotgun ever saw them again.

Finally, at the fifth house, owned by a Mr. Jenks, Stan found a sympathetic ear. Jenks said he didn't have any work for Stan, but he knew times were hard and besides, he'd been the recipient of some kindness when he was down on his luck. Mrs. Jenks let Stan wash the dishes after a chicken dinner, and then Stan offered to play a few tunes while Ole Bill gnawed happily on a soup bone Mrs. Jenks had found "jus' layin' around."

They bedded down around eight P.M. Jenks got a couple of blankets from a cedar chest in the bedroom and led Stan and Ole Bill to the barn. "It ain't much," he said, "but it's clean and dry. Jus' keep that dog of yours tied up -- I don't want him to get into the livestock."

"I'm not too worried about Ole Bill," Stan said. "He's been with me for almost two years and never yet left my side." Still, to be safe, they found a piece of rope and tethered Ole Bill, giving him plenty of room to walk around. Stan covered himself with the blankets and the two of them were asleep within minutes.

In the middle of the night Stan woke suddenly to the sound of a flock of chickens squawking in agitation, and Ole Bill baying and barking like he had the Devil of all racoons treed. By a few slivers of moonlight filtering into the barn he could see the rope, still attached where Jenks had tied it, but Ole Bill had slipped out of it. For a moment Stan panicked. When he picked up Ole Bill somewhere in Arkansas, the dog had almost grown into maturity; he had no idea of the dog's history. Ole Bill had never shown any inclination to do anything more than some ritual butt-sniffing before, but he had no idea what Ole Bill had subsisted on before they started traveling together.

As he threw off the blankets and started toward the noise, Stan heard Jenks yell "Stay there!" and then, as he found his way to the henhouse, he saw Jenks in a nightshirt, holding a rifle in one hand and trying to balance it while holding a lantern in the other.

By the light of the moon and the lantern the two of them could see that Old Bill had a man trapped in a corner of the fence surrounding the chicken yard. Ole Bill was barking and growling at the man, and if the man so much as tried to move, Ole Bill would growl and bark louder and force his quarry back into the corner. Stan searched frantically around the yard, but he saw no blood, no feathers, no indication that Ole Bill had done any damage to Jenks' chickens.

Jenks sat the lantern on the ground and handed the rifle to Stan. "I hope you know how to use one of these," he said. "Hold him there until I get back." About an hour later Jenks appeared with the local sheriff. With Stan's help controllling Ole Bill the sheriff took charge of the intruder, who by now was begging to be locked up -- anything to get away from that dog.

"That dog of yours is entitled to a reward," the sheriff told Stan the next morning. "The fellow he cornered's confessed to four different thefts up and down Post Hill Road. The Jenks house surely woulda been the fifth if it hadn't been for Ole Bill."

Two days later Jenks introduced Stan to a friend of his who ran a local bakery. Stan went to work for the baker and picked up a few extra dollars playing the banjo at local dances. The next summer he married a girl that lived in the house where he'd been greeted with a shotgun. Years later, when he became mayor of that same small town and was known throughout the area as the owner of Ole Bill's Bakery, he would tell people about small acts of kindness, and how you never know how they'll be repaid, or by whom, or what will eventually result from them.