My Mrs. Schnitzer
I was standing next to the kitchen stove, peering into the array of pots, basking in the warmth and abundance of home. I sampled a chicken wing from the soup, then a piece of stuffed fish, and a few strands of noodle pudding. My mother watched me approvingly, certain that I had starved all of the long year spent at college so far from home.
“ Better than cafeterias?”
“ A hundred times better,” I said.
I thought for a moment that she would begin again the long discussion about my going away from home. “ Why,” she asked over and over again, “ when there are so many schools in New York is it necessary for you to go to Chicago?”
I couldn’t tell her, but it was necessary, and I hoped she wouldn’t ask.
She didn’t. I was grateful. Instead she told me the family gossip, the births, the deaths, and the weddings.
“Did Papa write that your Mrs. Schnitzer passed away?” she asked, not turning from the sink where she was washing pots.
The noodles seemed to turn to clay in my mouth, and I had to return some to a napkin before I asked, “When?”
“ When? About two months ago, maybe three, Mrs. Miller told me. I met her in Klein’s.”
“ What did she die of?” I asked casually, impersonally, as if it made no difference to me.
“ She had a stroke. What would you expect? The way she carried on, it’s a miracle that she didn’t have an attack ten years ago.”
“ What about Hershel?”
“ Who knows, they probably put him away.”
I thought of my Mrs. Schnitzer the rest of the day, the week at home, and even on the train going back to school. Fat, noisy Mrs. Schnitzer would never have another fight with her neighbors, never slap her tall son and scream, “Why should you be such a fool, Hershel?” and never again feed me crisp, cheese-filled cakes and chick peas when my mother wasn’t looking. There was a secret understanding between the two of us that I had never been able to explain to my family.
She had lived next door to us in the first house I remember, a tenement in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. We had identical apartments beginning with a thirty-foot-long entrance hall, filled with boxes of clothing, dishes, an ice box, brooms, boxes of soda water, everything that couldn’t fit into the three crowded rooms beyond it. But there the similarity ended. Our family was brought up to love quiet, gentleness, and self-control. Shouting, display of temper, the briefest lapse from politeness in even the smallest thing was sternly forbidden. If in a harmless discussion, my sisters or I raised a voice my father was quick to ask, “Why are you fighting?”
“But we’re not fighting, we’re just talking,” we protested.
“There is no one deaf here. If you are just talking, then speak softly. You will be heard.”
We learned to speak softly. There were times when the house was electric with tension, but it was as if padded, insulated with silence.
Right next door, behind a wall that seemed to be made of paper, Mrs. Schnitzer shouted and cursed. “What devil brought you home?” she greeted her husband at ten o’clock at night. “Is this a time for a man to come from work? Or didn’t you go to work? Why didn’t you drop dead on the way?”
This we heard as plainly as if there were no wall between us. Papa would clap his hands over his ears and shut his eyes. “A shame,” he would say trembling. “A woman with no embarrassment, no feelings.” In his eyes she came to be the epitome of vulgarity and coarseness, and he could hardly bear to look at her. He avoided her as Mama avoided the mice that scurried across the kitchen floor when night came. If he heard her footsteps in her long hallway when he was leaving our apartment, he would wait until she was safely down the steps and out the front door before he ventured out of our door.
Mama did greet Mrs. Schnitzer, but I doubt that they ever said more than good morning or good afternoon to each other. Mama, however, had no more to do with the other people in the house. She had lived there since she had married and watched it lose its newness and elegance and become shabby and poor. Her neighbors had never been her friends. She never visited them or joined them in front of the house where most of them spent their afternoons. When her work was done she sat at the kitchen window or in the rocker near the dining-room window. She sat by the hour watching the people come and go and I often wondered what she thought while she sat so still, her chin in her hands. Papa and Mama sat outdoors only on the hottest Sundays in summer. Then they walked to the bridge plaza and looked for an empty bench under the sickly trees that grew there out of the pavement. They sat there quietly, among strangers, reading their papers.
It was impossible for me to be so still. As soon as I could, I made friends out of sight of our house, where I could play stoop ball and potsy without being called from the window. I played running games around the corner in the middle of the street and climbed the iron fences that surrounded the brownstone houses. I found that the freedom was worth the inevitable scoldings when I came home dirty and torn. Though I was often filled with remorse because my mother seemed so dissatisfied with me, the need to run away was too strong to deny, even to please her.
I made friends with Mrs. Schnitzer quite accidentally, though I let our friendship grow out of a kind of spitefulness, knowing that Mama and Papa thought her so dreadful.
It began harmlessly one Friday afternoon. Mrs. Schnitzer walked into the entrance hall of our house behind me and picked up a spelling test paper that I had dropped. I heard her call “Rayzel, Rayzel,” her voice echoing in the empty hallway; but I didn’t stop. Everyone called me Rosalyn since I entered school and I had forgotten that I was Rayzel too. I took the steps two at a time, but she caught up with me, waving the yellow paper in her hand. “You dropped your paper,” she said, looking at it as she handed it to me. “Such a beautiful paper! Your mother should hang it up so that everyone can see it.” I took it from her, thanked her, and continued up the steps. She came up beside me.
I was about to hurry ahead of her when she said, “What would I give to have my son bring such a paper home? Do you know my Hershel?” I shook my head. I saw him often near our house and also among the motley lot of children in the ungraded class at school. I had never spoken to him, but I had never laughed at him or the others in his class. Their stupid, empty faces filled me with a feeling of horror that was akin to fear.
“Tell me, Rayzel,” she asked, “what does your mother do with the papers you bring home?”
“Nothing,” I answered.
“She doesn’t even give you a nickel for a paper like this? Tell me the truth.”
“I don’t even show them to her,” I told her. No one made any fuss about test papers at our house. It was expected that we would get A’s.
“I like to look at such nice papers,” she said. “Save them, Rayzel, and show them to me.”
I never brought any papers to show her, but each Friday I found her standing in the doorway of the house. She always asked whether I had taken any tests and I showed her the papers. There were always A’s and once even an “Excellent” that she asked to keep if I was going to throw it away.
Mrs. Schnitzer now had something for me to taste whenever she met me. She unrolled a paper napkin or a piece of waxed paper and offered me some honey cake, cookies filled with cinnamon and raisins, or a handful of hot chick peas. “Is it good?” she asked, as if I were a judge of fine baking. I wolfed the delicacies while going up the steps, always making sure to be finished when I reached our door.
My mother saw us talking to each other one afternoon and asked, “What does your friend Schnitzer want?”
I couldn’t answer her. When Mama called someone my friend it meant that she held no good opinion of them. She insisted that my friends were to blame for all of my real and imaginary faults and for my lapses of good judgment that seemed to increase as I grew older. Still I couldn’t give up Mrs. Schnitzer and the praise she lavished on me.
Our friendship grew in little snatches of conversation stolen in the hallway or on the steps of the house where everyone sat in the summertime. On warm nights when I was not permitted to go away from the house, my friends came to see me. We sat on the steps and played Ghost, took turns telling stories, or singing popular songs. When it was my turn to sing, Mrs. Schnitzer applauded loudly. I was embarrassed and pleased at the same time. One night Hershel sat down on the steps beside us. At first we sat and squirmed, uncomfortably quiet, not knowing what to say. Then the other girls began to tease him. I begged them to stop and for many weeks I listened to choruses of “Rosalyn loves Hershel, Hershel, mershel, loony-head.”
One evening Hershel left his house after supper and at midnight had still not returned. Mrs. Schnitzer, after waiting all evening at her window, stood in front of the house, a heavy carving knife in her hand. “I’ll cut him into pieces, the idiot,” she shouted to some women who were still sitting outdoors. “I’ll break all his bones. I’ll fix him so that he stays out all night. He won’t live to go out of the house again.” They watched her silently, knowing that she was frightened out of her wits, but no one took it upon herself to comfort her. I stayed awake, too warm and disturbed to sleep, tossing and turning until nearly one o’clock, when I heard someone say, “Here he comes.”
From my bed near the window I heard Mrs. Schnitzer beating her fists on Hershel as if she were pounding a drum. “Murderer, fool, where have you been?” she shouted as she pulled him into the house with her.
We moved away from Williamsburg when I was fifteen to a small two-family house near Sheepshead Bay where there were not as many people on the whole street as there were in the apartment house we left behind. Neither my father nor mother ever went back to it, but I came to visit my friends on the street once or twice a month. Whenever I passed the house I found Mrs. Schnitzer sitting on her folding chair outside. One Saturday afternoon she asked me to come in with her. I felt like a conspirator as I followed her into the familiar hallway, already uglier and smaller than I remembered.
We sat at the kitchen table and I munched some cookies and sipped milk. Hershel wasn’t there and I was glad, because he still frightened me and I didn’t know what to say to him. “How is Hershel?” I asked.
“Hershel,” she said, “is Hersheling.” Then very slowly, as if she found it hard to say, she added, “You know, Rayzel, you’re a smart girl, and you understand many things. Can you understand then, that I know that Hershel will never be any different than he is. He will never grow into a normal human being. I know that my husband too will never be a man like other men. He will never have any understanding or consideration for anyone. It’s his nature. I’m not a foolish woman, Rayzel; I know these things. My trouble is that I can’t believe them. How can I believe every day that the Lord chose me, me out of the whole world for His personal fool, His favorite scapegoat?”
What could I say to her? I sat holding my cookie, not eating it, wondering what my mother would say if she heard her talking like this, instead of shouting wild, meaningless curses.
“Look, Rayzel,” she spoke loudly as if to wake me up and make me listen. “I believe that everyone should have a little misfortune to give them compassion for those who know nothing else but misfortune, and to teach them that the world was not made for pleasure. But a little, a measure with justice. It’s not necessary to pour salt on the wounds for a whole life.”
Then she looked up at the ceiling and said, “Excuse me, my dear sweet God in heaven. Excuse me, I made a mistake. I married a gambler and a fool whose parents died in an insane asylum. But I didn’t know these things when I was seventeen years old. Why didn’t You tell me? And why couldn’t You at least have given me some decent children to brighten my life? Couldn’t I have had something, something without fighting, something for free because I was lucky?”
Then she looked down at me and laughed, making her face look young and quite pleasant. “I waste my time, Rayzel. He’s too busy. He doesn’t hear. It’s a big lively world He takes care of.” Then she lowered the pitch of her voice which had become so high it was almost a falsetto and asked, “What is happening to you, Rayzel? Do you have any friends at the new house? Do you like it where it’s so quiet?”
I didn’t like to talk about myself or the new house to her. It sounded as if I were boasting and it called attention to the wide gulf that was dividing us more and more each day.
Almost a year after we moved, I stopped visiting my old friends and Mrs. Schnitzer, too. The thought of her put a hollow feeling of guilt in my middle, but I didn’t come and I didn’t write, though I meant to. It wasn’t until the first summer after I was in college that I saw her again.
I had a part-time job in an office in the old World building, opposite the City Hall. I was through for the day at three o’clock and I was walking across the park to the Park Square station when I saw a woman wearing a white rayon dress splashed with blue and red flowers and an ancient black felt hat on her head. I couldn’t help laughing at the sight, her movements were so like caricatures of the pigeons’ that waddled all around her. Her bosom came first and the back of her wiggled and strained to catch up with it. She walked toward Nassau Street, stopped and turned to Broadway, took a few steps and turned again. She was obviously lost. I had come halfway across the square when I recognized her and hurried to catch up with her.
“Mrs. Schnitzer,” I called. “Wait a minute.”
She stared at me as if I were a ghost. “Rayzel,” she grabbed me and hugged me. “I’ve been wandering here like a lost dog. Hook and look for a face I can ask a question of and who do I find? I could eat you up, I’m so happy to see you.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked her.
“What am I doing here? God knows. I’m in a wilderness. As soon as I got on the train at Fourteenth Street, I knew it wasn’t right, but the doors closed so quickly. I asked a man if it goes downtown and he says yes. Then suddenly he grabs my arm and says, ‘Get off; we’re almost in Brooklyn.’ I got off and here I am. How far is to Delancey Street?”
“You’ll need a trolley,” I said. She looked so confused and worried that I offered to take her. “I don’t have anything special to do. Come, let’s go.”
I took her arm when we crossed Nassau Street and the fear and tightness seemed to leave her. We walked past the construction crews who were fixing a new entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge and stopped next to a noisy driller to wait for a trolley that would take us along the Bowery to Delancey Street.
“How is the house?” I asked, shouting above the din.
“The house is the same hut the people are changing. The old-timers are moving away; Italians, Spanish, and Negroes are moving in. Not in our house, hut all around.”
I shook my head to show that I was listening. “How are you and Hershel?”
“Everything is the same as it was. Only that the people in your apartment are very cheap, common, and dirty. I don’t even look at them. The children run in the hallway, all day long, filthy, without shoes on. Hershel isn’t in school any more, so I have more time to worry where he is and what he does. He tried a few times to do some work, hut he knocks things over, he hurts himself, he forgets where he’s going. So it isn’t any good. Then there are times when he shuts himself in the bedroom and won’t come out and other times he goes off I don’t know where and my eyes creep out of my head until he comes hack. What’s there to tell?”
All this she shouted above the noise of. the drill, while she held my arm tightly. There was a great crowd waiting for the trolley and when it came we were among the last to squeeze into it. I was glad that I had come with her, because she would never have got on without me behind her. She held my arm when the car lurched and she looked questioningly out at the Bowery.
“Some fancy neighborhood, Rayzel. It makes Williamsburg look like paradise.”
I smiled my answer. The desire to talk was gone, now that we were wedged knee to knee. The trolley moved slowly and noisily, almost reluctantly, as if it were impeded as much by the damp and the heat of the day as the heavy load it pulled. The passengers were still, as if it were too great an effort to contest the noise of the wheels.
Then Mrs. Schnitzer’s voice broke the silence. “Who’s pinching there?” she asked.
Behind her, so close he was almost on top of her, was an unshaven, poorly dressed man. His face was shrimp-colored and expressionless. His pale blue eyes had no light of recognition or understanding. His breath was foul, and his clothes dirty and perspired. He looked out the window and didn’t turn his head.
“I’m talking to you, mister. Are you deaf? Who do you think you’re fingering?”
Her voice fell on the silence like a stone in water and laughter rippled out in waves all around us.
“Don’t stand watching birds fly. I’m talking to you. Do I have to box your ears to make you listen?”
He didn’t move a muscle. “Let him alone, Mrs. Schnitzer,” I begged. “He doesn’t know any better. Ignore him.”
“No,” she said loud enough for everyone to hear. “I’m not a little girl that stands on one foot and then the other, making herself small. I don’t make believe nothing is happening because I don’t know what to do. I’m not afraid of anything, not of anyone, not even of myself.”
She looked right into his face, but he didn’t move.
“Don’t think because you’re a tramp, I’m a tramp. Nobody pinches Bella Schnitzer, do you understand?”
A man in the back called out, “Throw him off, lady.”
Someone else with laughter in his voice added, “Push him through the window.”
Bella grabbed his sleeve and pushed him toward the center door. The people in the way tried to make a path for him. It was hard to push him, like moving a heavy recalcitrant animal. He muttered something I couldn’t understand but moved very slowly. At the next corner, the conductor, a heavy young man who could have been a wrestler, made his way through the car, took the man by the arm and in a voice that brooked no argument said, “Get off.”
The man stumbled down the stepway and wavered in the street while the trolley pulled away without him. The passengers in the back saw him sit down on the curb.
The trolley moved along more quickly as if the driver was trying to make up for lost time. Few people rang the bell to get off and the dreary streets we passed had no passengers waiting for us. We were at Delancey Street in a few minutes and the trolley emptied.
We stood on the street corner and Mrs. Schnitzer looked as though she hated to leave me.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“To the loan society on Essex Street,” she said. “It’s a wonderful place. I don’t know what I would do without it. One week the ring goes in and the watch comes out. Then the ring comes out and the pearls go in. Sometimes everything is in. Still we live. I’ll pay my bills and take the car over the bridge home. I know my way here.”
She held both my hands in hers. “How can I tell you how wonderful it is to see you? I know you’re busy, but if you have a chance, don’t forget Bella Schnitzer. Have a good time, Rayzel, and be smart. Don’t let anyone fool you. Do what you want and don’t try to please everyone. Remember it’s a hurrying life and why and for what? No one tells you, just rush, rush, rush, and quick before you turn around they want to turn out the light and pack you up in a box.”
“Take care of yourself,” she said, kissed my hands and left me there.