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The International Writers Magazine: Life in New York

Bar Mitvah Survival Techniques
• Dean Borok
The problems with Bar Mitzvahs is that they are all about kids. I can take the three-hour ceremony in the synagogue. Everybody gets to say something, and it’s charming. But don’t invite me to the reception, where it’s six hours more of the same. In this case, the reception was held at the new Yankee Stadium, which has a truly impressive bar at the second level overlooking home plate.

Dean Borok

The whole stadium is wired for video and sound like nobody’s business, and the kid’s parents made full use of it, subjecting the guests to an endless booming narrative about the glories of the kid and his family. I felt like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange”, where he’s strapped in place and forced to watch endless loops until it drives him insane. But in the case of Alex, at least they gave him some drugs.

I’m not ungrateful for being invited. I couple of great shots of me swinging a baseball bat and playing the harmonica overlooking the Yankees infield. Anyway, I was invited along because my girlfriend, Magpie, is friends with the kid’s mother, whom I’ll call Tweety. On my own, I can’t get arrested, not that I’m antisocial, but every time I say something it’s exactly what people don’t want to hear. I inhabit a particularly narrow terrain of No Man’s Land, where the Jews can’t stand me and gentiles hate my guts. It’s karmic.

I’ve been living in New York a long time, and the problem is the food. New Yorkers go out for social purposes and are oblivious to what they eat. It’s cultural. If the kid’s parents had devoted half the effort to the food that they were serving that they had to the media presentation, it might have turned out decently. I had a couple of lamb chops and a piece of fish that were overcooked and then allowed to get cold during the endless speeches.

There was nothing to do but drink. We were seated between a hefty female attorney from Mineola and a guy who had driven in from some-freakin-where, who introduced himself by worrying to me that his giant car might get stolen in the South Bronx Boogie Jungle. Don’t ask me – I don’t even own a driver’s license! The whole hall was filled with bankers and rampaging mobs of children, like a stampede of prairie dogs. An ocean of kids streamed through the aisles and jumped up and down on the dance floor, cheered on by a relentlessly enthusiastic MC, who certainly had the magic touch as an animator of pre-teen excitement.

What can I tell you? There is nothing about me that is suitable for family or community life. My solution to a situation like this is to try to put on a nice appearance and keep my mouth shut, which is exactly the opposite of most New Yorkers ha-ha! Even that don’t get me off the hook with Magpie, who wants me to be outgoing and personable. Good luck with that! The dinner repartee was not scintillating, the topic of conversation inevitably having for a starting point, “What do you do for a living?” It was all bankers and attorneys. I think that if I would have met anybody interesting, I would have passed out from the shock. Actually, in New York bankers and attorneys are what pass for interesting persons. Who was it, Diogenes stalked the streets of Athens in search of an honest man. Shit, I’d be happy to meet anybody who wasn’t a processed cheese slice.

There was nothing for adults to do. The dance floor was mobbed with kids, and the music was beyond execrable. You can call me old, but I like to dance Latin music and swing, but there was no chance of that. I only vaguely knew the kid’s parents and they only invited me to entertain Magpie. One time she had insisted that I accompany them on a Sunday drive to Connecticut in their red Mercedes convertible. How did I know that there is a dress code for taking a car ride to the country? You’re supposed to wear earth tones and corduroy, like a Woody Allen movie. What I look like, Annie Hall? Hell, man, I was on my own time. I wore black leather pants and jacket. I also brought along my harmonica. You can call me a crashing bore, but if it had been a cooler class of people we might have had a few laughs.

Apparently, Magpie adheres to the New York convention that whoever has the money is basically the boss. It’s a hierarchy: you kiss the butt of whoever’s in front of you in line. I wasn’t playing that shit either, particularly with these two, who did not display any discernible elements of sophistication that I could detect. The talk was all about money, and who’s got it. It was like taking a ride to the country with grandma and grandpa – except these two were only thirty years old! I thought I was having an out-of-body experience with these jokers.

Then, after all the talk about money, they take us to an absolutely terrible roadside restaurant for hamburgers and we paid Dutch treat. The car ride back to the city was like a shot of Novocain. By this time, Tweety and her husband, Stuart, were absolutely sick of me, and the three of them ignored me and talked some more geriatric shit, for two more hours.

Hey, no problem! What I Care? The only problem was that I couldn’t get up and leave. We were stuck on a country highway in Connecticut, and I was a captive audience for a whole lot of plain vanilla social gossip. I started to burn up. “This is never going to happen again”, I swore.

OK, the pain of that encounter was seared into my skull forever after. If I throw you into the back seat of my car and then hold a three-way conversation around you for a couple of hours, like a dog, I am sending you a clear message that I don’t intend to see you again, and that was fine by me. But, for some reason, and this may only be peculiar to me, New Yorkers will behave ghastly toward me and are then astonished that I have given up on them. In my mind, it’s totally normal to treat New Yorkers like shit. I do it all the time. Fuck ‘em! What’s not normal is to abuse them and then anticipate that you will see them again. That’s where these fucks diverge from reality. Too spoiled!

Magpie’s sister, Myrtle, is a case in point. I was invited to spend a weekend at Myrtle’s beach cabin in Amagansett, so I took my coffee out into the yard and took a couple of hits off a joint so I could appreciate the bumblebees buzzing around the lilac bush. Unknown to me, Myrtle was monitoring me through a window, and later she decided to hold a little AA intervention on me to get me off drugs. (The whole family’s in AA, but that’s a different story). I laughed it off, but she became incensed that I wouldn’t play along with her little reality show, and by that evening she was actually screaming at me. Finally, she threw me out of the house in a hysterical screaming frenzy witnessed by a whole room full of her dinner guests. She called me “thoopid”, an asshole, told me “you blew it!”, etc. Absolutely no self-control.

But here’s the punchline: I had been paying Magpie’s rent for the whole year in a bad economy, without any prospect of getting it back. All I expected in return was a few summer weekends in her sister’s beach shack. Instead of “thank you for taking care of my sister through tough times, I get confronted with a screeching imbecile who turned to Magpie and shouted, “Find yourself a job so that you don’t have to depend on this asshole!”

OK, I got the fuck out of there. Something about me makes people want to put me in my place. As far as I was concerned, that was the end of the story. But no! This old bag is astonished that I still can’t stand the sight of her. Am I overly sensitive? Get th’ fuck outta here! In the case of Tweetie, I had spent the whole day locked up in her car as she droned on about some mindless nonsense, and by the end of it I had determined her mind to be absolutely nowhere, a jumble of useless attitudes gleaned from New York magazine.

So, just to get my goat, any time Magpie wanted to get under my skin, she would tell me that Tweety was a superior writer to me, which really pissed me off, since I considered her to be a birdbrain and a complete waste of time. Sometimes I would answer the phone and it would be Tweetie looking for Magpie. She would try to be agreeable to me, but I was having none of it, incensed at Magpie’s insistence on Tweety having a superior intellect to mine. I never told her that Magpie was using her to bait me. Don’t blame me. I can understand playing one person off against another in the business world, but in personal life it’s just a neurotic game for idiots.

One night I came home from a long day at a grueling translation assignment to find Tweety and Magpie (by this time I had been forced to move in with her, due to the economy). Magpie said, “Dean, this is my friend Tweetie”. Tweetie piped up, “Dean knows who I am!” Yeah, I knew her, all right, from the freakin 8-hour car ride to oblivion and from Magpie using her to insult me and get under my skin for reasons of pure female perversity. Small in stature, Tweetie had a talent for popping up in your face like Jack-In-The-Box, or one of those Jap mini-subs that they used to invade Pearl Harbor. One day, having polished off a bottle of Pinot Grigio at Belvedere Castle in Central Park, Magpie and I were on our way to Johnny Fox’s Bar for happy hour, when Tweety popped up like Topsy in front of our faces at 79th and Park Ave, followed by her husband. “Happy Valentine’s Day!” she gushed. “Oh no”, I thought, I’m not going to be trapped into a dumb streetcorner conversation with these two, like the ancient movie “Marty” starring Ernest Borgnine. “Whaddaya you wanna do tonight, Marty?” “I dunno, whaddaya you wanna do tonight, Angie?” I shook the guy’s hand and kept walking. Magpie had to rush to keep up with me.

I hadn’t wanted to attend their kid’s Bar Mitzvah, but Magpie wouldn’t let me off the hook. She warned me darkly, “If you do anything to embarrass me, I’m changing the locks on the front door”. I resolved to put up a nice appearance and not to tell any jokes, which would have been wasted effort. Stuart worked as a bond analyst for Dorkley’s Bank (not its real name) conglomerate, whose stock had collapsed in 2009 as a result of such gross incompetence and mismanagement that it was holding one TRILLION dollars of bad assets. The stock had collapsed to a value of one dollar per share, with the New York Post running a front page joke comparing the price of a Dorkley’s share to a McDonald’s hamburger. Even after a 100/1 reverse split, Dorkley’s share price continued to plummet to the equivalent of about 3% of its original valuation.

Every possible scandal and fraud has been attached to the bank, including phony, inflated ratings issued to worthless bond offerings to placate potential IPO customers; intentional sale of worthless issues to naïve investors; price fixing and LIBOR and forex manipulation; and hundreds of millions of dollars just vanishing into thin air, as recently occurred at its Mexican subsidiary. The latest blow to the bank’s credibility came just recently, when it failed a Treasury Department stress test designed to diagnose whether it held sufficient reserves to weather a future crash. As a result, Dorkley’s Bank is prohibited from declaring any stock dividends until such a future time as it can prove its solvency. It's currently under trusteeship, as the government tries to decide what to do about the hundreds of billions it has had to pay to subsidize the bank's operations, to keep it from flat-out collapsing.

The bank’s Board of Directors, which has been derided as a revolving chair game of shopworn duds, has charitably been described as being docile and asleep at the switch, though a less benign interpretation could be advanced that they are like the cat in Zola’s “l’Assommoir” that delicately picked clean the carcass of the roast after all the merrymakers had passed out from gluttony.

In any case, Stuart and Tweety have survived the depression without ever missing a beat, so they have a lot to be grateful to Obama and Geithner’s TARP rescue. Millions of people’s lives have collapsed, but they dodged the bullet. Which begs the question: If the guy was too cheap to buy hamburgers for Magpie and me the time he took us out, what motivated him to spring upwards of a million bucks to rent Yankee Stadium for a huge Bar Mitzvah, including flying in a whole party of people and putting them up at the Hilton? The only answer I can devise is that in throwing such an ostentatious fete, Stuart is trying to impress the Board of Directors to consider him as a major player and award him a seat on the board while there is still something left to scavenge. It’s not just the kid’s Bar Mitzvah, but also Stuart’s Banking Bar Mitzvah.

As Timothy Geithner frankly professes in his new memoir, his job was to stabilize the banking system, not overthrow it. Once he did his triage, it’s up to public policy to decide which banks are too big to fail, or if the system should be allowed to continue to survive.
© Dean Borok May 15th 2014

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