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Unavoidable Bumps — and Bumpers — in the Road
By Ben A. Shaberman
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 21, 2008; C10
Nothing says you’re pathetic quite like losing your bumper in the middle of traffic — except maybe the act of retrieving said bumper in front of an audience sitting comfortably in their shiny SUVs and late-model sports cars.
I lost my bumper after hitting the edge of a curb. I heard a loud clank but figured it was just the jack bouncing around in the trunk. Imagine my surprise when I saw my unattached bumper in the rearview mirror. By then, I was beginning to cross a bridge — a very unsafe place to stop. Once over the span, I pulled off and hustled back on foot to claim my car’s posterior appendage.
Fortunately, some good Samaritan had moved the bumper out of the traffic and onto the sidewalk, a doubly good deed because the road gunk covering the old hunk of rubber and metal was surely toxic.
As I began my Walk of Shame — trudging back over the bridge with bumper in hand — I wondered if it was time to give up on my 1989 Volvo 240. It had racked up more than 225,000 miles and the average Vespa has a higher book value, but like many ancient Volvo 240s, it still ran great. And, investing in a new car would reduce the amount of money I could put toward retirement. Not that I’m close to retiring, but what with Social Security sinking and the cost of everything else skyrocketing, I estimate that to maintain my modest standard of living in retirement, I’ll need roughly $9 million in my 401(k) — more if my vegan diet translates into longevity.
What also came to mind during that five-minute trek with my detachable bumper was how much I had grown to dislike our automobile-driven society. I began imagining what it would be like if we all drove SmartCars, or hybrids, or just any vehicle that got a minimum of 40 miles per gallon. What if we took the savings from fewer trips to the pump, smaller car payments and fewer pollution-caused illnesses and invested it in education for our kids, or health care for the elderly and underserved, or a $9 million retirement fund for me?
By the time I got back to the Volvo, I was feeling pretty good about my frugal choice of transportation. Sure the old car wasn’t perfect — I wish it got better than 25 miles per gallon — but many cars out there are more wasteful. My Walk of Shame had become a Walk of Hope. I found myself humming “We’ve Only Just Begun.”And so it seemed. My trusty independent mechanic, Han, was able to hook me up with a used, i.e. recycled, bumper from a junkyard for $150. I hoped to take my Volvo to 300,000 miles and beyond.
At the 235,000-mile mark, I learned a new automotive lesson:Losing a bumper isn’t nearly as pathetic as having your car catch on fire in front of your place of employment at the height of evening rush hour.
The first hint of trouble was when the car stalled as I was leaving my office parking lot. It started right back up but made it only a few yards before conking out again.
The second hint of trouble was the plume of smoke coming from under the hood.I made a hurried search for any valuable items, got out of the Volvo and, standing in the cloud of smoke, directed traffic around my burning car. The police and fire department came. My co-workers — Angie, Mitsy, Linda and Dorie — came driving by on their way home for the evening. I’m not sure what proper car-fire etiquette is, but they were all very willing to give me a ride or help in any way they could.
Frankly, this was the most excitement I’d had since someone brought a dish made with chicken stock to a vegan potluck.
I must admit, I was hoping to see my car burst into flames. I’m not an arsonist nor do I seek out mass destruction, but I am a guy and even we compassionate men have a bit of pyromaniac tucked away in the recesses of our crowded minds.
Alas, there was no explosive drama, though there was significant damage under the hood, and the car was later deemed totaled. I got $751 from my insurance company — not quite enough to buy a new hybrid but a respectable sum nonetheless.
About a week after The Great Fire, I paid a visit to the junkyard to claim a few items from the car trunk — snow shovel, boots, portable radio. I was sad to see my old Volvo in a muddy field among piles of twisted and rusting car frames. This really was the end of the road.I take consolation in the fact that the Volvo outlasted three computers, three careers and four relationships. And maybe a bumper or wheel will live on as a replacement part for another 240. With the huge cost of retirement, used auto parts just might be my legacy.
Slow learner now gets being Jewish
By Ben A. Shaberman
March 30, 2007
On Labor Day in 1969, at the age of 8, I broke into Taylor Road Elementary School in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, with six other kids and vandalized the school’s library, restrooms and teachers lounges. The opening of school was delayed for three days because we did such a good job of tearing the place apart.
Ironically, the chief mastermind of the destruction, an older boy and well-established neighborhood troublemaker, lived across the street from Taylor, and his mother called the police when she spotted some kids hanging out of the school’s windows. Without realizing it, she busted her own son along with the rest of us.
As the youngest and smallest of the proclaimed juvenile delinquents — and the only one who bawled hysterically throughout the court hearing — the judge went easy on me. I got off with trespassing, probation and a $25 fine.
However, my divorced parents, in a rare collaborative moment, were not so lenient. They sentenced me to Hebrew school. What better way to keep little Benny off the streets and get him in touch with his Jewish heritage?
And so began what was supposed to be my path to Judaic enlightenment.
For the next three years, I attended afternoon Hebrew school four days a week. While most of my friends, even the Jewish ones, were playing baseball, going to the candy store or watching “The Three Stooges” on TV when they got home from school, I was getting on a bus to go learn a language that moves across the page in the wrong direction and uses vowels optionally.
Why couldn’t I have been just a neglected latch-key kid?
At my Hebrew school, there was no show and tell, no games, no movies — just the rote memorization of the Hebrew language and Torah study. We also learned about the ancient characters in Jewish history: Abraham, Isaac, Judah and the Maccabees, King Solomon and Queen Esther. And though “The Three Stooges” all were Jewish, they unfortunately weren’t part of our stimulating curriculum.
Neither of my parents ever did much to reinforce our Jewish heritage at home, though my family did celebrate Passover. The highlight of our Passovers was the ceremonial meal called the seder. For many hours, my family would discuss and taste each symbolic, mouthwatering item on the seder plate, which included parsley, horseradish, a bone and a boiled egg. With a few strips of bacon, the seder plate would have made the perfect meal for the Atkins diet.
During our seders, there also was discussion of the 10 plagues believed to be a punishment from God that befell the Egyptians for their enslavement of the Jewish people. These plagues ranged from frogs to boils to slaying of the firstborn. My innovative family developed its own plague for the seder: chain-smoking. We took the “slaying of the firstborn” concept to a new level: “Slaying of anyone breathing.”
My relatives spent the rest of the evening kibitzing — mostly complaining about the hippies and President Nixon. “They’re all meshugeh,” my grandfather would groan as he tapped his cigarette on the side of an overflowing ashtray.
The final stage of my formal Jewish education took place in beautiful Pompano Beach, Fla. I moved there in 1972. Though there was a local synagogue, there was no Hebrew school, per se — only Sunday school. So my sentence was immediately cut by 75 percent — just one day a week instead of four!
My parents’ plan at that point was to get me to learn just enough Torah so I could have a bar mitzvah and officially become a Jewish man. I had a different plan.
As they say in real estate, it comes down to location, location, location. Our apartment complex in Pompano happened to be just a few blocks away from a canal teeming with fish. And our unit happened to be next to the home of Rick, a nice gentile boy who loved to fish as much as I did.
After my many months of Sunday morning angling expeditions with Rick, my mother was notified that I rarely showed up for class. At that point, she and my dad threw in the towel — they gave up on the bar mitzvah plan. I was freed from bondage! It was like my own personal Passover.
For the next 30-plus years, I never looked back. I occasionally got dragged to synagogue by a girlfriend, but the operative word there is dragged. I even played in a Jewish softball league for a few years, but the operative word there is softball.
However, a recent chance encounter with a charming woman named Bluma Shapiro gave me a new perspective on being Jewish. I never actually met Bluma; I only heard her briefly on a radio program during my lunch hour.
Bluma described her miraculous story of survival during the Holocaust. She talked about how the Nazis occupied her hometown of Bialystok, Poland; how she unsuccessfully tried to hide from them in an underground system of bunkers; how she regularly saw Jews shot at point-blank range for the most arbitrary reasons; how she ended up being a prisoner in five concentration camps, including the infamous Auschwitz; and how after liberation, she returned to Bialystok to learn that every single member of her immediate family had been killed.
While I was listening to Bluma, it occurred to me for the first time that the Holocaust was never discussed during my Hebrew school career. For that matter, no one in my immediate family — parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles — ever talked about it either. Did they think the story was too shocking for a growing boy — at a time when that boy was watching graphic footage of the Vietnam War and civil rights movement every day on prime-time television?
It also occurred to me that the Holocaust ended just 16 years before I was born. When I was a kid, 16 years seemed like an eternity. World War II was ancient history to me. But now, at 46, it gives me chills to think that the Holocaust ended just 16 years before my arrival on this planet.
I was incredulous to realize that my Jewish elders chose not to educate me about a period in our history that was so incredibly horrifying on such a grand scale. Furthermore, unlike those familiar stories from the Old Testament — those greatest hits from Hebrew school — the Holocaust is very recent history. There are even eyewitnesses like Bluma Shapiro still alive to tell the gruesome tale.
Bluma is in her mid-80s, but still spends a lot of time talking to school groups about her experiences.
“Though it takes a lot out of me, I believe the reason for my survival is I have to talk about it,” she says. “People say it didn’t happen. I lost my whole family — my parents, five siblings, aunts, uncles. No one survived. This is why I have to talk about it — no matter how much it costs me emotionally and psychologically.”
Despite my parents’ best intentions, I never developed much of an appreciation for my Jewish heritage. I doubt I’ll ever have the urge to attend Sabbath services, buy a yarmulke or lead a Passover seder. I have no regrets about balking at that sacred rite of passage, the bar mitzvah.
But thanks to Bluma Shapiro’s remarkable story of survival and courage, and her tireless conviction to keep on telling it, I am beginning to understand what it means to be a Jewish man.
Ben A. Shaberman is a writer living in Baltimore.
In an Old Snapshot, A Long Lost Life Slips Into Focus
By Ben A. Shaberman
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 26, 2007; C08
Over the past few years, my mother has been sending me an odd assortment of nostalgic items, including my Cub Scout neckerchief, first-grade report card and great-grandparents’ naturalization papers. In one envelope was a black-and-white photo of my father, circa 1960. He was about 30 years old then, newly married to my mother. They were just getting settled in their new home. I arrived on the scene about a year later. My mother could have been pregnant with me when the photo was taken, or maybe they were just in the planning stages.
At that moment in time, he was still just Stan, not yet having achieved Dad status. Stan was a plumber and looks just like one in the picture; a short stocky guy with glasses, dressed in a flannel shirt, work pants and a cap. He’s standing with his hands in the pockets of his jacket and smiling, with a cigarette between his lips. Back then, people enjoyed smoking. It wasn’t just a habit, it was a look.
My parents decided to divorce in 1963, the year Kennedy was shot. They were having financial problems, because my dad wasn’t working. My mother had to drop me off at a friend’s house during the day so she could work in the medical records department of a hospital. Eventually, they couldn’t make payments on our house. What a year for the Shabermans.
I have virtually no memory of my mother and father being together. The only recollection I do have is muddled and I can’t attest to its validity. It could have been a moment in a dream. What I remember is standing in a crib while my parents were arguing. They were in their underwear. I never bothered asking if they kept my crib in their bedroom.
Neither of my parents ever remarried or dated much. I lived with my mother and saw my dad on occasional weekends, when we were living in the same town. We’d go to the movies, go bowling or fishing. My dad had a wealth of knowledge and enjoyed rattling on about all sorts of facts, people and events, even if I had no interest in who or what he was talking about. Sometimes we would visit a friend or a relative, and my dad was invariably asked to repair something — a washer, toilet, or furnace. He could fix anything, though he loved to toy with people while he worked. He’d be wedged under the kitchen sink of some stressed-out housewife and proclaim, “Yeah, I think we’ll need to redo the plumbing for the whole house,” only to emerge minutes later having easily fixed the problem.
My dad and I had a falling-out when I was 16. He was angry with my rebellious lifestyle and the fact I was not doing well in school. He was convinced I’d never come to anything, and it broke his heart. We didn’t talk for seven years, until my last year of college. He died from lung cancer just after I graduated.
The last time I saw my dad, he was on a ventilator in the intensive care unit. Through a series of hand motions and scribblings on a piece of paper, he was able to let me know that there was some cash in a drawer in his apartment that he wanted me to take. I found the money. He died a few days later.
I’m drawn to that old photo of my father. It captures such a happy moment in young Stan’s life, with a new wife and a baby on the way. And though I wish he could be here with me now, how great it must have been to have known him then.