The Smartest Girl In New York City
Dr. Hurley's Snake-Oil Cure 2011
May 8, 2012
My cousin Reba called me yesterday with a purpose. She only calls me with a purpose, but first we have to go through the ritual of small talk, gossip and the family death and dying manifesto, before she says, “Oh, by the way.”
“Thank God she’s alright now,” Reba tells me, “but we almost lost my mother last week. She’s still in intensive care and will be hospitalized for at least two more weeks, but she’ll be okay. Thank God.”
I tried to break through her wall of words to ask what was wrong with her mother but she was playing a strong defense and I never found out. I did hear that it was the doctor’s fault, her mother was coming up on ninety and she had asked the anesthesiologist for an egg cream, but that’s as far as we got because Reba segued into a scene from our childhood—one she remembered and I didn’t. I was finally able to elbow my way into the conversation to tell her that I had my coat on and was just ready to leave for work when she called. That’s when she said her, “Oh, by the way.”
I sat down and if I’d really been wearing a coat I’d have taken it off.
“How are the kids?” she asked.
“Great,” I said refusing to get into the “and how’re yours” game.
“Great,” Reba said. “I hear that Max is living in the City now. Does he ever talk about settling down, marrying, and having kids? He’s such a good boy, your Max.”
“I actually never talk to him about things that personal,” I lied. “I’m sure if he gets serious with someone he’ll come to grips with all that goes with it.”
Not surprising me, Reba said, “I have a cousin. You wouldn’t know her—she’s from the other side . . .”
“Europe?” I interrupted.
“No, silly,” Reba laughed, “my mother’s side. I thought that she and Max would make a great match. What do you think?”
“From what you’ve told me so far I see a short courtship, a long and happy marriage, several small insignificant bouts with infidelity—all of which will be forgiven but never truly forgotten, many children, leagues of grandchildren—all stunningly attractive and exceptional and a picture of you in a place of prominence in every one of their houses in honor of your bringing Max and Whats-Her-Name together.”
“Okay. Shall I call them? I haven’t seen Max in a few years so why don’t you jot down some info about him and e-mail me. I’ll call my cousin George and ask him about his niece.”
“Is George’s niece the one that’s the perfect match for Max?” I asked.
“What’s her name?”
“Does that make a difference? Reba asked in her best “answer a question with a question” tradition.
“It might,” I said. “Max has an iron clad rule that he won’t date anyone whose name begins with a vowel.”
“To tell you the truth,” Reba said, “I know this cousin quite a bit less than I know Max and you know that I haven’t seen much of Max that much over the years. But the thing is I have a good feeling about the two of them.”
“Well, we’d have to get past the vowel thing.” I said.
“Why so adamant about the vowel?” Reba asked.
“I don’t know. I think he may have gotten frightened by one when he was learning to read.”
“Any permanent damage?” Reba asked, less with concern over Max and more over fixing up her cousin’s daughter with damaged goods.
“Of course not,” I tell her. “Why would you even ask?”
“Sorry,” she said. “Anyhow, I’ve got a real feeling about Max and this one. She’s nomadic like he is. She loves to travel and only goes back to Brooklyn to work long enough to build a travel nest egg and then she’s gone again.”
“If that’s not a sound basis for a relationship then I don’t know what is,” I tell her.
“See. You’re kidding but I’m not. She’s a hard worker and like Max, somewhat of a free spirit.”
“What does she do that she’s such a hard worker?”
“Here’s the good part. She makes good money—she’s a schochet.”
“Schochet, like in killer of animals, schochet?”
“Schochet like in a licensed ritual slaughterer,” Reba corrected.
“I’ll give you Max’ phone number as soon as he gets his phone in,” I tell Reba and then I begin telling her a made up boring story about my dog and a slice of pepperoni pizza that makes her tell me she has to run.
Reba has an ulcer and I believe it’s due to Caller I.D. Only I know the real reason for her ulcer. She loves to call me and unload her problems—real and anticipated. Since I get a lot of business calls at home I had few choices but to answer the phone in the morning, praying it wasn’t her, or letting my answering machine screen my calls.
It sounded too bogus to continually tell clients who were in the middle of leaving me a message that I either forgot to shut off the machine, was out of my office or was busy working and screening my calls and would only take the important ones like theirs. It made them wonder if I was avoiding them when I really wasn’t home and they had to leave a message.
Then a miracle happened. Caller I.D. became available in my neighborhood. It changed my life and my relationship with Reba. Unfortunately for her, it also prevented her from expelling her built up mischegas, her brand of craziness, and forced her to keep it pent up inside until she could get a hold of me. It ate away her stomach lining with rotting gossip juices.
She must have surmised something was amiss because she took to calling me from pay phones and her car. There were times I suspected it might be her so I’d pick up the phone but not say anything for several seconds, and just as she started to say hello I’d pretend I was my answering machine. I’d say that my message portion was full and to please call me back at another time. It was not uncommon for her to get verbally abusive and vulgar at an inanimate object she perceived was blocking her God-given right to talk to her cousin.
I did answer the call from the hospital; not knowing it was Reba, calling to let me know about her ulcer. She told me the attending doctor told her to see a therapist so she could talk out her troubles and not internalize them and after a while she might be able to get off her medicine. I don’t think she ever connected my Caller I.D. with her ulcer, but I felt a twinge of guilt. It passed.
Max came home for a weekend visit. He loves to cook and was cooking up his latest vegetarian creation for his stepmother and me.
“You won’t even taste the curry,” he said as he spooned it into the mixing bowl.
“If we won’t taste it then why is it necessary to use it?” I asked. “You know we don’t like curry.” That argument was the same one I’d used as a kid with my mother when she told me to eat my lima beans and I’d tell her I didn’t like them. “How can you not like them?” she’d ask. “They have no taste.” When I asked why she made something with no taste she told me to shut up and eat the beans if I wanted dessert. The generations on both sides were in collusion.
As he cooked, he told us about an upcoming blind date. A group of his friends was pushing him to find a girlfriend and all wanted to fix him up, so he gave them an assignment. “Fix me up with the smartest girl in New York City,” he told them. “That’s my criteria,” he said. He told us they already knew the type of woman he liked from a physical standpoint, but in order to buy time he threw them a curve.
“How was I to know they were curve ball hitters? So two days later I got a call from a friend informing me that they’d found her. V (Max will only use initials with us—never real names) was the unanimous choice of a group of my close friends. I envisioned a dossier of her being passed around from one to another as her face filled a large screen in front of them. Feeling outfoxed and boxed in I offered to make dinner for her and B. and B., the couple who knew her best.”
“How’d you like a date with a schochet?” his stepmother Elaine asked him.
“How would you like a curry burger for dinner?” he asked back.
“No. I’m semi-serious,” she said and then told him about my cousin Reba’s call.
“Do you think it’s possible she’s a vegetarian?” he asked and then without waiting for an answer said, “I don’t think I’d be able to make small talk with a woman who kills things for other people’s pleasure. It’d be like dating a hit-woman or a cannibal, only not as interesting.”
“What would you suggest I tell Reba?” I asked.
“Tell her that my privates are allergic to animal blood,” he said.
After the weekend Reba called and wanted to know if I’d broached the blind date subject with Max. I told her that he had an upcoming blind date with “the smartest woman in New York City” and was in training for that. “He can handle only one major challenge at a time,” I told her. “It wouldn’t be fair to him or the killer-girl at this moment in their lives.”
“I think that if you refer to her as that “killer-girl” it might turn Max off,” she suggested.
“Knowing Max,” I said, “I think it just might turn him on. I know the idea fascinates me.”
“So who’s the “smartest woman in New York City” that he’s planning on dating?”
“All I know is that her name begins with a V,” I told Reba. “His friends are fixing him up.”
“Is she Jewish?” Reba wanted to know.
“She is the smartest woman in New York City,” I said. “What do you think?”
“Of course,” Reba says. “But what do I tell my cousin George?”
“Tell him that he has to wait his turn. He can have V when Max finishes with her, but not before.”
“No. What do I tell him about his niece?”
“Does she have a name to go with her knife yet?” I ask.
‘Miriam,” she says. “Max and Miriam—what a nice ring it has to it.”
“Like poet and killer,” I say referring to their occupations. “Is she frum?” I ask. “Max wanted to know.”
“Has Max turned religious that he now wants someone frum?” Reba asked excitedly. “If he’s looking for an Orthodox Jew then I’m definitely the right matchmaker for him. We belong to the largest Orthodox Synagogue in the area.”
“Your matchmaking?” I ask. “Is this a business? Are you planning to charge? Do I pay by the pound—is that how it works?”
“No. It’s my hobby. I’m working on getting two couples together as we speak.”
“As I recall from my single days and your matchmaking efforts then, you didn’t do so well by me.”
“You were tougher than the average,” Reba tells me.
“Oh, you mean I had standards.”
“No. Everyone has some standards, but at the time I was working with you most of the good ones were working with others. There’s no exclusivity anymore, thank God. Every prospect’s a free agent.”
“But from my experiences with your matchmaking—both times, I can only suggest that you weren’t very good at your hobby.”
“Well, I have a marriage and two children to my credit,” Reba said defensively.
“And?” I asked.
“And what else do you have to your credit for all your years of matchmaking?”
“Well, I’m working on two other couples and then there’s Max.”
“You mean to tell me that in all your years of this hobby of matchmaking all you have to show for it is one married couple with two children?”
“They’re lovely children,” Reba said.
“You’re not very good at your hobby,” I told her.
“You’re cruel,” she said.
“You need a different hobby,” I told her.
“No way,” she said.
“Reba, I have one word for you and I want you to think about it,” I told her.
“What is it?”
Two weeks later Reba called and pretended she hadn’t been getting my ads for stamps on consignment from the backs of comic books. I quickly begged off the conversation by telling her that Max was home and we were just going out. She pushed the Miriam/Max scenario and then told me to call her—she’d been checking into the frum situation and had some great possibilities.
Max told us that his intimate dinner for four turned into a fiasco. “A dozen of my friends invited themselves over for dinner because they wanted to check out my action with “the smartest girl in New York City”.” I expected a woman with a massive forehead, glasses and no sense of humor,” he said as he rummaged through our cupboard looking for more spices to go into the green thing he was making for lunch.
“Were you surprised when she showed up?” I asked.
“You bet,” he said. “Do you have any fresh basil or only this stuff in the jar?”
“What do you think?”
He opened the jar and told me that she was one of the bigger surprises of his life.
“First of all this forehead with glasses walks into my kitchen, introduces herself and shakes my hand. She was actually stunning. She hangs around the kitchen as I’m cutting up the tofu and tells me she read my book.”
“That’s a good sign.”
“Possibly. It was our last private minute together because all of the other guests piled into the kitchen and from then on it was all group for the rest of the night. It turned out okay though, because there really was no spark between us.”
“How can you tell if you weren’t alone?”
“Amongst other things, I realized during dinner that she wasn’t the smartest girl in New York City.”
“Did she flunk a spot quiz?”
“Kinda,” he said. “The group was talking about my book tour and someone asked V if she read my book and she said she’d read it twice. All heads turned towards me as if to say, ‘you hooked her, Max,’ but it turned out she read it the second time to correct the punctuation. She then pulled the book with the corrections from her bag and suggested I send it to my editor for the next printing.”
“It’s poetry,” someone told her. “Punctuation is inventive in poetry.”
“Even allowing for that,” V said, “the punctuation or lack of it takes away any brilliance the poems might have had. She then smiled at me just as you would imagine the smartest girl in New York City smiling after she proved herself smart once again.”
“What did you say?”
I said, “Thank you. Would you care for more wine? She smiled and put her palm on top of her glass in an all too cutesy way for her answer. For the next couple of days I had messages from some other guests suggesting different forms of improvement I should be working on—my cooking, décor, my writing and even my personal hygiene. It was their way of apologizing for their choice of date.”
“So who’s next?” I ask. “You want me to have Reba call the killer-girl? She’s dying to make amends for her screwups with me.”
“Is this from when you were a kid?”
“No. It was after your mother and I divorced. I needed some alone time and Reba, along with many well-meaning friends, thought I needed companionship.”
“Like any mature person would,” I said, “I got a dog.”
“Blintzes? Is that when we got Blintzes?” Max asked.
“I remember going with you to different dog pounds until we found him.”
“Her,” I said.
“Blintzes is a her?”
“Female companionship,” I said.
Max laughed and reminded me that we had a neighbor who couldn’t say Blintzes, so he called her Vishinsky.”
Blintzes, close enough to hear her name, looked up for a moment to acknowledge our talking about her, and then went back to sleep. She was sixteen years old and slept a lot.
Max finally agreed to give in to Reba’s prodding but said he had to see a picture of any woman before he’d agree to date her.
“You know, Max,” Elaine said. “If a woman is really Orthodox she’ll be wearing enough clothes to cover most of her body, if not all, so what good’s a picture?”
“The more body the picture covers, the better,’ Max said. “In fact, all I need is an eye. Get me a picture with someone covered by a shawl except for one eye and that’ll do.”
When I told this to Reba she said, “The fig doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
From amongst the prospects Reba sent Max, he selected a Rabbi’s daughter. She lived in New York and was a grad student at NYU. She wasn’t all that religious and Reba’s friends considered her as leaning towards Gentile. She couldn’t make a local match with any of the orthodox bachelors, no matter how close to their mid-twenties they got, even if she was a Rabbi’s daughter.
Max and Reba spoke on the phone and Max told Reba that he wasn’t going to grow side curls or wear a black hat for this date. Reba told him that there was more to it than that and went back to talking about Lotus, the Rabbi’s daughter.
The name would have been enough. There is no way in the world Max would’ve passed up a date with a woman named Lotus, much less a Rabbi’s daughter by that name.
A month of whispered reports and shrugs had gone by when we were finally allowed to meet Lotus. She and Elaine were in the kitchen talking when I walked in. Blintzes was lying at her feet and Lotus was filling Elaine in on their relationship to date. I introduced myself and they didn’t mind that I stayed and listened in.
“I knew a little about Max from my cousin; she’d been fixed up with him once—liked him a lot, but never heard from him again.”
“Why do you suppose?” Elaine asked.
“She intimidates men,” Lotus said. “My cousin Veronica is probably one of the smartest women in New York and most men can’t handle that. Anyhow, when Max e-mailed me I decided to goof on him to see if he had a sense of humor. I wrote him back that I was thinking of taking a job as a lap dancer at a club in the diamond district. I couldn’t wait for his reaction. I told him that I was tired of working for Peanuts and a Yiddish speaking lap dancer could make big bucks. I didn’t tell him that Peanuts was the name of the kids magazine that I edited or that the Hasidic landlords would never allow that type of club in the neighborhood.”
“What was his response?”
“He asked if we could get together at Starbucks the next night. I could tell that he had thoughts of saving me from lecherous, foul-smelling Hasidim.”
“You didn’t consider that he was possibly thinking lap dance?” I intervened.
“A girl can hope,” Lotus said. “Over coffee, which eventually turned into dinner at an Indian Restaurant, we exchanged blind date stories. Max told me about his date with Veronica, only he called her V. He was very much the gentleman—never using a name or even confirming one when I tried to guess who he was talking about. It actually drove me a little crazy. Anyhow, I never told him that V was my cousin and her version was slightly different or he would have found out that one of his friends had put her up to the punctuation corrections as a joke, and that he had written her off too soon. I didn’t want him calling her again.”
It turned out that Lotus was her real name—Lotus Esther Gelb, and she was the daughter and granddaughter of rabbis. Her father, Job, however, was not a rabbi with a congregation, but he did many things rabbinical. So many things that the other rabbis called him “Odd Job.” Job Gelb was a mohel, a part-time Hebrew teacher, a fill-in Rabbi for vacationing rabbis, as well as a real estate salesman on the Lower East Side. He was also the supervising Rabbi for the Queens Kosher Slaughterhouse, where amongst other duties, he supervised the schochets, including our killer-girl Miriam. He was one of the very few Orthodox Rabbis who would perform a mixed marriage, and on top of all this, he would lecture at the local colleges and radio stations on the writings of Phillip Roth. He made a very good living and didn’t have to answer to any congregation.
Lotus’ mother, Sara Pomerantz-Gelb, had been a teacher at, and was now the principle of, Our Lady of The Perpetual Mission Catholic High School. Both Sara and Job had been raised as Orthodox Jews and still considered themselves that way. They left Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the late Sixties to join the hippy movement, not realizing that it was winding down. Without renouncing their religion or families they managed to extend their options and lifestyles to accommodate both. Hence, the name Lotus. Her mother, in a rare “mother-daughter/girlfriend” moment shared with Lotus that her name came from a sexual position they believe was used on the night of her conception. Lotus told her mother that she had imagined a more spiritual reason for her name. “Be appreciative that we weren’t doing “the goat” or the “stinging bee” that night,” her mother told her. Lotus was. In keeping with the Jewish tradition of naming a newborn after a deceased family member, Lotus was named after her grandmother on her father’s side, Leah. This put her Rabbi Grandfather in an awkward position, one that he resolved by only calling her Leah.
In the meanwhile Reba was getting flack for being a matchmaker for Lotus Gelb. A committee from her Synagogue visited her to discuss her matchmaking and her wasting an eligible Jewish bachelor on the likes of Lotus. Coincidentally, the six women who showed up as the committee all had marriageable daughters. “This could ruin your career, which at this stage isn’t all that great,” Tovah, the apparent leader, told Reba. “How could you put Lotus ahead of my Becka? Lotus is a shanda, a shame, and is a reflection on your matchmaking abilities,” she said.
Reba caved. Under pressure she invited Max to dinner one night when he was in town and Elaine and I were busy. Lotus was away at a conference.
“I felt like a sausage, you should pardon the expression, in a dog pound,” Max told us. Reba had seven women, all young, single, and religious sitting around the parlor when I got there. Even Miriam, the killer-girl was there.”
“So what happened?”
“It was great. The conversation was stimulating, but only after Reba left us to do the dishes. They were a nice bunch of young girls who were pushed into this by their mothers. Even Miriam turned out to be nice. One of them took out a copy of my book and asked if I’d read one of my poems. She picked the most sensual. I ended up reading three poems and then answered questions and discussed poetry in general. Most of them wrote some poetry also. All but Miriam led much too sheltered lives.”
“How old were they?”
“I’d guess from sixteen to nineteen.”
“None for me, but they all seemed to know I was involved with Lotus and were respectful of that. I felt as if I was speaking to a group of kid sisters. They went beyond poetry and asked me about dating etiquette, current movies and books. They were thirsty for something other than religious topics for a change. By the way, they were all beautiful.”
“All except killer-girl. She was attractive, with the most amazing eyes, gray with gold flecks. If they were marbles she’d have been queen of the schoolyard. But I believe that killing all those animals has taken its toll on her young life. Those beautiful eyes had a vacuous stare most of the night. Also, she’s in her twenties, older than the others and somewhat out of place. She must have felt it because even though she was polite, she fidgeted quite a bit, obviously waiting for the evening to end. She had nothing in common with the other girls except for being single.”
“Well, you did a mitzvah for Reba. She was in matchmaker hell for setting you up with Lotus and not any of these other girls.”
“Listen, it was a great ego booster and a fun evening with a sweet group of girls. I’d do it again.”
“Not likely,” Elaine said. “Reba was visited again by the committee again, only this time they told her to keep you away from their daughters.”
“No. They say you filled their heads with nonsense and that Reba should be on the lookout for Yeshiva buchers and no more poets.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have given them my e-mail address,” Max said.
“That’s what Lotus said.”
“Was she angry?”
“Not at all. Lotus enjoyed hearing the story and predicted that they’d all rip up my address so they wouldn’t be tempted to write.”
“Really. All of them except killer-girl. Rabbi Job spoke to her when he was in Queens at the slaughterhouse.”
“Lotus told you that?”
“No. Killer-girl did. She e-mailed and told me that the Rabbi told her I was off limits. She asked if I wanted to meet for a drink.”
Max laughed. “All I’ll tell you is that I called Reba and asked her to work hard to find Miriam a nice guy.”