My Crazy (But Wonderful) Jewish Grandmother
by Lee Sobel
The Greystone Hotel sat at the corner of 91st Street and Broadway in Manhattan. It was a crummy "single room occupancy" fleapit that smelled like mothballs and my Jewish grandmother lived there with her second husband as long as I knew her. I don't want to sound cruel but the lobby of this shithole of a building was populated with people who looked so old I thought they were already corpses. It was like purgatory with gefilte fish.
My grandmother, on the other hand, was a fireball of energy. She wasn't religious but she was definitely Jewish. I'm half Jewish but my shiksa mother's side of the family all lived in other parts of the US so I spent much more time with my New York grandparents. "Gramcrackers" as I called her had lived an interesting life -- she had worked in jazz clubs that Billie Holiday sang in and she had also done a stint as a burlesque stripper. Now her life was betting at the OTB around the corner from her and occasionally she worked as a waitress in a coffee shop. Because she worked in restaurants she felt she had a right to get tough with lazy waiters. One time she took me to a restaurant and after the waiter brought our food she asked me if I needed anything else. "Ketchup," I said. She asked the waiter a few
times to bring ketchup and he never did, so she got up, went into the kitchen and got me a bottle of ketchup. Did I mention this wasn't a place she worked at? She had gumption. She had moxie. And I inherited her total lack of patience. She was the type of person who would just get things done. What's not to love?
In fact, while she clearly didn't have much in the world on the basis of the room she and her husband lived in, she always seemed to have cash and I know she went to Atlantic City a lot and she was always talking about some bookie she knew so I guess she was gambling and making money that way. She was always generous, buying me comics or giving me money to buy a toy. She also loved to fatten me up with candy, cookies, etc.
She had some peculiarities. Besides her chain smoking which, unfortunately, killed her at age 66, she drank a lot of coffee and was constantly wired up and nervous. She had a lifelong fear of fires so if a fire engine came down her street or even if its siren could be heard wailing from a few blocks away, she would drop everything and run to the window in a panic to make sure her building wasn't on fire. She had like a second grade education so she said words like "turlit" (toilet), "soder" (soda) and "hunnit" (hundred). She was extremely affectionate and would give me these loud smoochy kisses on my cheek. She also liked to reach her hand
down the back of my pants and grab my little kid ass and exclaim, "Have I got a tush!"
Because their hotel room was so small, they must have been lacking closet space because she had about fifty coats hanging on a hook on the bathroom door. Unless one removed the coats, one could not go to the bathroom in privacy. I would try to take the coats down and she would ask my why I was doing that. I'd tell her I had to make a doody or whatever and she would say, "No one is going to look at you." Well, apparently I was not the world's greatest ass wiper because sometimes my underwear would have skid marks, so Gramcrackers was constantly telling me, "Wipe good, Lee." I'd be taking a dump and look over through the open bathroom door and see her staring at me. "Why
are you watching me?" I'd ask. Then she would deny she was looking at me and I'd say, "But I see you standing right there looking at me now!"
My grandparents were big TV watchers. They had this large black and white TV with an antenna on it and they would only keep it on Channel 2. They had some weird thing about changing the channel and they simply wouldn't do it so too bad if I wanted to see something on another network. They loved doctor and cop shows -- they would get so wrapped up in them that you would think these were real stories and not fiction. If I even breathed, my grandmother would start shushing me and if I protested and said, "I didn't say anything," she would then say, "Lee, did I talk during your show?" referring to some kids thing I watched earlier and I would say, "Yes you kept talking all the way through it."
My grandmother loved me and loved having me sleep over. She called it "a swinging party" and she had a huge jar of candy that she would only open when I would sleep over. My parents must have loved getting free babysitting and they dropped me off there all the time. My grandparents slept in separate beds and they would call down to the lobby of the hotel to have a rollaway bed sent up for me. Eventually they bought an army cot that they kept under my grandmother's bed and I can't say it was the most comfortable thing in the world, unless your idea of sleeping on super tight stretched canvas sounds like fun. My grandfather wore a stocking on his head when he went to sleep, long
johns and black socks. He was tall so his feet would stick out at the end of the bed, right over my face where I slept on the floor. He snored like a bear and my grandmother would tell him to stop snoring and he'd wake up and say he wasn't snoring but then he would go back to sleep and keep snoring with his mouth agape. My grandmother woke up early in the morning and she would always be pacing back and forth, making coffee, lighting her umpteenth Pall Mall 100 or whatever. She had these clicking ankles that would click and click past me sleeping on the floor. I don't know what was worse: the snoring or the clicking ankles. I know what was worse -- in the summer they not only didn't have air conditioning but my grandfather didn't even want to open the window. He had a fear of catching a cold, he said. He also liked his milk to be room temperature so he didn't like to put his milk in the refrigerator. Yeah, he was a pretty interesting guy.
My grandmother loved eating at Jewish restaurants. Her favorite was Ratner's down on Delancey Street. Amongst his neuroses, my grandfather had some sort of phobia about leaving his neighborhood so he would never come downtown where I lived with my parents. So my parents and I would take Gramcrackers to Ratner's and they would have a basket with rolls on the table and sweet and low packets which she would proceed to stuff into her pocketbook and order more to steal. She also liked to talk to my dad in Yiddish and the only thing I could understand was the list of food she would have given me at her apartment so I knew she was talking about me, but trying to do it in code so I didn't know what she was saying. The gist of it seemed to be great pride at having fed me like a horse but it would drive me crazy trying to understand what she was saying in Yiddish.
I think kids often feel a little weird around their grandparents. I remember once my parents had left me with her and I just wanted to go home. I called my parents and said as quietly as I could on the phone, "Get me out of here" and Gramcrackers was very insulted and upset with me. Sometimes we don't really appreciate our grandparents until they are gone. My grandmother passed away when I was 16. She'd already had had a heart attack and was still smoking. While she was alive she was a constant complainer -- "kvetching" as she called it. But when I spoke to her right before she passed away, I knew she was not long for this world - for once I could hear real pain in her voice. I think when she was alive her complaining about stuff would be a way of trying to ward off bad things -- if you complained enough about things, maybe in the end they wouldn't be so bad.
For years I had weird dreams where I would find out that my grandmother was not actually dead but she was hiding out and didn't want me to see her. In one dream I saw her looking out her window at me from her hotel room. I went to the door and knocked and she was in there, still alive. "Why didn't you tell me you were still alive?" I asked. "Because you didn't love me enough," was her response. I know it sounds corny as hell, but I do feel like Gramcrackers is still alive inside me. Damn, that does sound corny, but it's true.