My parents had a lot of Jewish friends, and so did I. In fact, I was taken to school throughout my childhood in a carpool made up of Jewish kids. Our neighbors were Jewish and so was my father’s boss.

All the Jews I knew had an uncle named Max. I have some idea of what an Uncle Max might be like, but little actual experience. My father’s family didn’t have any. His family was German but gave their sons English names to avoid trouble, names like Sheridan, Donald, and Sherwood. There were no Maxes in our family. Max, I reckon, is a man of the world, but not a very successful one. Gentiles like me rarely had such a person in their lives, and if they did, he was probably in prison.

He’d be apt to have a tattoo on his upper arm if he were a Protestant. And he’d more than likely be heterosexual, but not the type who is into women. A heterosexual who’s not into women: yes, that’s what I just said. Not a ladies man, but a man’s man. I’d say, when getting at the WASP equivalent of your Max, you have to think he’s a kind of loser. Not exactly like the Jewish cousin living in suburban New Jersey. Max, no doubt, is heterosexual, too, don’t get me wrong, but a Jew would not be likely to have done time.

Not, I mean, that I ever ran with criminal types. Nothing like that. The closest I ever came to rubbing shoulders with low lives was when I went one summer to a pro wrestling match with some guys from Buffa’s Gardening Center, where I worked. We headed over to West Memphis to catch the dog races, too. There were no Jews to be seen over there. Not many Episcopalians, either. That’s an entirely different breed of folks, what with tattoos and mouths full of chewing tobacco. No, Jews didn’t go in for that sort of thing.

I’m just saying, Max is a guy who might not be anything special but is just as likely not to care. He’s bored, sure, but his wife won’t let him do anything stupid. He’d like to go to the track over in Arkansas, maybe, but his old lady keeps him on a tight leash. She doesn’t let him overeat. She makes him change his underwear. He might care to do some gambling, but he’s not willing to cause upset. Besides, he’s got kids.

All Jews, I’m saying, have an uncle Max who once worked in the meat industry. That’s my experience. I don’t mean butchers. I mean industrial: long-haul delivery, packing, factories.  Something in wholesale. They’re Jew-owned. He’d be the sort whose wife has cooked rib roast every day of the week for 38 years of marriage and then goes and drops dead of cancer, leaving Max at 78 or so to fend for himself. They liked corned beef.

Max, mind you, has never so much as opened a refrigerator door. Max and “dear Ruthie” were married at early middle-age, each on the rebound from a failed first marriage. Max had gotten hitched to his high school sweetheart, but came home one day to find her closets cleaned out. Ruthie’s first husband died of a heart attack while playing softball at the Jewish community center over on Prescott. He just keeled over one night in center field. It was a failed marriage in her case on account of the fact that he had been cheating.

The counter culture was invented in the 60’s by the children of people like Max and Ruthie who had grown sick and tired of being served short ribs in heavy gravy night after night. These are the kids who invented yogurt. These are the one who introduced bean sprouts and wheat germ to the world back in 1967. These are the ones who read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and decided to dump their marriage licenses and monogamy. These are the ones who invented homosexuality.

The parents were decent, law-abiding people. Maybe they cheated on their taxes; who knows? On weekends, they played canasta and Chinese checkers. They wrapped their living room furniture in plastic. Max ate dinner on a TV tray so he could catch the news. These were not religious people. They raised a bunch of atheists. They took back their pregnant daughters and sent their gay sons money, unlike my people who would have thrown us out.

The children of Max and Ruthie couldn’t take it anymore. They cancelled their Book-of-the-Month Club memberships and moved to organic farms in rural California. These were the kinds of people who rebel by refusing to wear underwear. They make a philosophy out of it like Allen Ginsberg. (I wonder if his father’s name was Max?) These were the women who took off their bras and never looked back. They let their children run around the house shitting on the floor like cats. They were in rebellion against litter boxes.

As an example, take Phyllis Appelbaum and her cute two-year-old son, Sascha, who used to run around the house naked. They had just returned from living out in California. Sascha wouldn’t hesitate to leave a little gift for his mother on the parquet floor or, God forbid, the shag carpeting. She had been trained to accept all her son’s actions with nonchalance. Her parents would have been alarmed. Her mother would have been mortified, and was. Her father, Milton, would have been angry. “What the hell…?” There would have been war.

Milton and his wife Suzy had been our next-door neighbors. No, they did not approve of their grandson being raised like Ooly, the family’s prize Siamese cat. But Phyllis had absorbed the teachings of her guru, a middle-aged Czech who held court somewhere out in the once- affordable Bay Area, in a four-bedroom house, surrounded by seven adoring women. Four of them gave birth to children he had fathered. Phyllis was one of them. He’d convinced them all to go to bed with him by belittling their “bourgeois” inhibitions. He introduced them to group sex, free love, and bisexuality. Phyllis’s father called him a Bolshevik. Somewhere, I surmise, there is a connection to be found between his insistence on allowing the kids to crap all over the place and his demand that his women leave their bedroom doors ajar. During their periods—Phyllis told me this—he made them sleep outside in a tent.

Robin, Phyllis, Andrea, and Mikey were all products of Jewish households that were once run with the fanaticism of Japanese internment camps but with an abundance of food. Whereas a white kid of Protestant heritage might be told to scrape off that little bit of blue mold on his slice of Wonder Bread, the Jewish kid would be rushed to the emergency room and then held back from school for the rest of the week for fear of his developing lockjaw or hepatitis.

In the late spring, all the Jewish kids I knew would skip two to three days a week of school due to their having contracted pinkeye at somebody’s pool over the weekend. No WASP ever contracted pinkeye, I can tell you that. We wanted to, of course, we hoped to one day get that weekly pass, but our mothers knew how to cure pinkeye. “Get your ass in that car or I’ll wake your father.” And, sure enough, our eyesight was as good as new.

Jewish kids might have had a granny who opened shop somewhere every morning at six sharp. A bakery, for example, a jewelry store. That old bag, the beloved granny was probably called something like Nana. Max’s mother was called the top banana on account of the fact that she became boss when her husband Sammy died. She talked tough all right and probably had been around the block more than a few times, but she never told her child to get his ass out of bed if he were running a fever. Nana Banana took those kids to school or nursed them at home in bed and then got the bus to the shop. When Max told her he wanted to do something he liked, she laughed. When he told her he wanted to find himself, she left the room. She didn’t even believe in marrying for love. “Love? What’s that?” It would take another generation to break the mold. Max never did anything he liked, not once in his life, but his children did. In fact, they only did what they liked and were allowed to ruin their lives.

Not so my mother. “I used to walk three miles to a one-room schoolhouse. The least you can do is get into that car. Now move!” We never missed school. Didn’t matter what was the reason. Sick? “Move!” No child in America had an allergy until I was in college. Then it started. No vegetarian meal was served on an airplane until I was in my twenties. “You’ll eat it and like it” was what my father used to say. No alterations of the daily menu, ever. But the Jewish kids were finicky. They were taught to have favorites and to refuse things they didn’t like. Not us. “Eat.”

White children, for we were not WASPs, were thought of as ungrateful brats in my day, as burdensome ingrates. Selfish, spoiled and soft. Our parents hated us. Jewish kids, on the other hand, were also spoiled rotten, but their parents loved them just the same. This, as far as I can tell, explains the biggest difference between Jews and gentiles. But don’t believe me. Just look closely at Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. Look at Barbra Streisand and Cher. Look at Woody Allen and Hitchcock. Work it out for yourself. All I know is that my friends who had an uncle named Max turned out all right in the end. What am I saying? Max turned out all right, too. But my uncle? Ask him yourself. He’s in state prison in Iowa.

There is no question that Jewish Memphis and us gentiles crossed paths but inhabited separate worlds. That other neighbor of mine who seemed cheered by the news of Martin Luther King’s death came from a world unknown to most of the Jews I knew. His world was closer to that of Elvis.

Curtis Nash, my classmate, came from a colorful family. His sister Mary had more than just a little lamb. Back in 1971, Mary’s older brother, Joe, had something else in mind when he woke up one morning with a stiffy. His thoughts turned to making money, so he bought ten stocks before breakfast. Their sister Priscilla sat waiting at the curb, hoping to be picked up by a boy in a pink Cadillac. She heard that back in 1957, Elvis Presley once picked up a girl at this very corner, and when she came back three hours later, she was wearing a big grin.

Mary’s mother was that very girl, the one picked up that day in 1957. He took her to his leopard skin-covered den and they played canasta. They ate peanut butter sandwiches and when she tried to kiss him, he pushed her away and called her nasty.

Mary’s mother never lived down that day. She’d wanted to put her tongue all the way down Elvis’ throat. Instead, he turned her over to his pals, a bunch of idiots from White Haven, Tennessee, who liked to drink Michelob and fart out loud.

Mary’s mother, whose name was Trish, felt humiliated when the boys demanded her panties. One guy took them in his hands and shot them, like a rubber band, across the room.

They landed on the antlers of a dead deer whose head hung above Elvis’s RCA.

When Mary’s mother, Trish, got home, her parents demanded to know what had happened. Had Elvis behaved himself; had he been a gentleman? Trisha told them everything they wanted to know, but she didn’t say she was still wearing Gus Chandler’s underpants.

Priscilla, Mary’s little sister, spent her entire life envying Trish. She, too, wanted the boys to take her panties. She hoped someone would ask to look up her skirt. The fact that nobody did made Priscilla feel bad. To this day, she sulks in her room and eats Haagen-Dazs ice cream. She weighs 217 pounds.

You’ve met everyone in Mary’s family now except her daddy, Castle. Castle Nash was a frat boy from the University of Arkansas, a Bus. Ad. major who dropped out when his girl got pregnant. Trish used to sit naked on the floor of his dorm room, with her legs spread out. He’d roll oranges toward her pussy and when he hit it, she’d give his cock a little kiss.

Castle and Trish came to Memphis in 1963. Trish was a housewife and husband worked for the Southern Bell. They’re dead now. There’s only Priscilla left, who lives all alone in a once white neighborhood that’s gone black. She’s lost all her teeth, so everyone knows she can’t bite. The boys line up at her back door and hand her $5. She closes her eyes and thinks of Elvis’ Cadillac.

I, too, got into cars, and lived to regret it. I finally had a chance to spend some real money. By this time, I had a job and couldn’t wait to waste my salary. The choice was, well, endless. I ended up with a Honda Accord LXi, a rather attractive little thing with all sorts of fabulous gadgets. This was back in 1990, but the car was four years old. It drove like a dream. I took it out for a spin from the used car lot. I bought it on the spot and let the salesman talk me into getting a warranty for several hundred dollars. Why the hell not? One week later, the trans fell out. The whole system would need replacement. When I called the salesman to complain, he asked me what the hell was the matter. After all, I’d gotten the warranty, what did I think it was for? I disliked the car after that and was absolutely done with cars when the thing was stolen some time later while I was having a pastrami sandwich at my favorite deli.

I was learning gradually not to fall in love with objects. Years went by.

A while later, I learned a new Shakespeare company had opened downtown which the school district had contracted with. I was teaching freshman English and figured the kids might like to see a live performance. Tickets were available and transport could be easily arranged. I was thrilled by the emergence of a revitalized downtown. The success of any project in the area was not guaranteed as it was hard to get Westside audiences to come east. They’d come for basketball, but not for Shakespeare. The auditorium was packed that afternoon: over 800 screaming kids filled the place and never settled down. The house lights remained on and candy vendors hawked bags of Skittles and M&Ms. The show started and about ten minutes in, the chaperoning adults abandoned the auditorium to have a smoke. There were no ushers. It didn’t take the kids long to find other uses for their bags of candy, so in short order, they began pelting the actors. As the actors batted away the flying objects, they recited their inaudible lines. The place was a madhouse. This went on throughout the performance.

When we got back to the school, I placed a call to the executive producer, an English gentleman who seemed to listen patiently as I described the scene. Actually, he was bored. When I finished, he launched into a defense of the lack of supervision. “Who are we to decide how the audience should behave? The kids, as you call them, are meant to enjoy themselves.” “And what of those of us who couldn’t hear the play? Do we get our money back?” Nothing I said mattered to him. The place was pre-booked, paid in advance by the city. Word of mouth was irrelevant. He had his contract, so customer satisfaction meant nothing. “The M&Ms are a revenue source.” His position seemed to be that ghetto children couldn’t be expected to behave otherwise. But there was more. He defended what he called cultural populism, the right of the masses to ransack the citadels of privilege. He was as eloquent as he was condescending. I was a bug representing regressive values. He loved disorder. He seemed disappointed the kids hadn’t defecated on the floor. I tried to sort out his responses, which seemed to be: 1) “Why are you calling me?” 2) “My hands are tied,” and 3) “Aren’t you just a little teacher?”

It all comes back to the M&Ms. The kids had been invited to eat, not to watch the production of A Winter’s Tale. Surprise, surprise. The kids’ pockets were already stuffed with Skittles, which they were deemed too tasty to throw away. They’d stuffed themselves while on the bus and were no longer hungry by the time we arrived, so why not toss the lot at the lousy actors? And the producer was probably right. What was I going on about? The whole enterprise was no different from a ballgame or a traveling circus. What’s all this shit about culture?

***

For all installments of “Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1