The city was still pressed in the vice of muted snow. But it had stopped falling from the gray sky. A few flecks fell from the low cloud cover, only to disappear somewhere above the mounds of snow. But still I couldn’t find a taxi, at least this far in the north of Manhattan.
So I began the shlep south to locate some mode of transport to take me to that illusory physicality, home. There was a snow emergency in effect in all five boroughs. No unnecessary traffic was permitted on the street. It was only when I reached Fifth Avenue that some semblance of road was visible beneath my feet and I found a cab with a cabbie within, an old man sitting in the car, idling with the heater on full blast. He ignored my tapping until it was apparent I would not go away.
“Vat?” he asked, a level tone of disgust implying it was nothing personal.
“I need a lift,” I answered in Yiddish, following a certain linguistic instinct honed by one-thousand years of European exile. The man’s dull eyes lit: a person under fifty speaking the Mother Tongue.
“A landsman?” he said, finally, uncoiling his looping Ukrainian accent around his diphthongs and vowels. “What’s a Jew doing out in this? The mayor, may his name be blotted out, has closed down the roads. If I should get caught, a fine I could get.”
“I’ll give you $50.” The man gazed at me quizzically. What was my angle? Than all doubt evaporated as President Grant was pressed into his hand, magically outstretched.
“Vos mer yidn, als mer ganovim,” he said as I planted my fanny in the back seat. A venerable Jewish proverb of self-mockery: the more Jews, the more thieves.
As we drove downtown, the man would not stop talking. Now that he had found a fellow Jew, a real Yid, the words flowed like a tap which had been turned on and broken.
His was a familiar tale of destruction and dislocation. Similar in broad outlines to versions I had heard told by members of his generation, differing in minor details, mainly the boldness of the horror or deprivation suffered at the hands of goyisher scoundrels. This man was indeed a lucky Jew. As a teenager during the war a buxom Ukrainian peasant woman without a husband had taken him in as a farm hand. He shaved his beard and side locks and pretended to be her mute, pork eating son. The woman was “vild” the cabbie explained, implying more with his tone than with his words, but he was alive thanks to her.
“She von’t be among the Chassidey umot ha Olam, the righteous among the nations, in the Garden of the Righteous in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, but the shikska saved my hide, I’ll give her that.”
When the cabbie found out he was carrying Nathan Zimmerman, who wrote in Forvarts, he grew visibly excited. His tale was designed for installments in that venerable Yiddish daily, he panted, and he scratched his name and number on the back of a blank cab duty roster: Samkele Gabinizer. I looked twice at the last name. Gabiniz was the muddy shetl of my grandmother of blessed memory, my poor loopy Bubbe, who mind was stuck in the mire of history.