When I left my job in White Plains and began to work in lower Manhattan, my running-commute continued, but now I regularly ran both to and from work. The route over the Brooklyn Bridge was a bit over three miles, which at this point was a bagatelle. When pressed for time, however, I used the Brooklyn Bridge. If I was not in a rush, I went over the Williamsburg Bridge, which is north of my home and north of where I worked. This U-shaped route was five or six miles long, and if I took the Brooklyn Bridge in the morning and the Williamsburg going home, I had put in a respectable daily mileage.
I had run the Brooklyn Bridge route so many times that most of it was boring, but the longer way brought me to neighborhoods I enjoyed going through. The route from my office to the Williamsburg Bridge had me wend through Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Sometimes I would stop in shops that looked interesting. One favorite was an old bagel shop. They mostly made bagels for delivery to other outlets, but they did have a retail counter where I would make a few purchases. My choices were limited. The shop was old school, or maybe it was alt shul. No fifteen kinds of bagels. No pumpernickel or pesto or even cinnamon raisin. They made only a plain bagel, which was smaller and denser than what was even then becoming accepted as a bagel (the Wonder-Bread-inspired “bagels” are often correctly referred to as a BSO, a bagel-shaped object.) The bake shop rounded out their offerings only with bialys, a treat that has inexplicably almost disappeared, and a torpedo-shaped onion loaf. The products selection was limited, but all were delicious.
I also stopped in a Lower East Side store whose stock was hard to characterize. The dominant items were small appliances, but it also had a little of this and little of that. I learned not to assume that they did not have something simply because I did not see it. Ask, was the motto for this place. “Do you have a squeeze bottle with a star-shaped tip?” Or, “Do you have lefthanded pinking shears?” Often the answer was, “Let me see.” The owner would disappear somewhere for a few moments—maybe in the back or upstairs or the basement—and often came back with the requested item. I primarily stopped there to buy carbon dioxide cartridges, which were then hard to find, that I used in a seltzer bottle.
The owner and I sometimes chatted a bit. I learned that he lived on the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge and often walked to work and that his father had started the business. I learned a little about his kids, but almost never heard about his wife. He asked about my work, and when he learned where I grew up, he asked about Wisconsin. He was fascinated by it, perhaps because it seemed so foreign to him, a person who seemed to have spent his life in a couple of square miles on either side of the East River. I, however, showed my unsophistication with him. It was the season of the Jewish High Holy Days, and I knew Yom Kippur was approaching. I thought that that was the start of a new year on the Jewish calendar, and I wished him a happy new year. By the look on his face, I discerned that this was not an appropriate comment. Only then did I remember that Yom Kippur was a day of reflection, fasting, and atonement, not a time of celebration. The store owner said nothing about my faux pas.
In those days, Manhattan’s Lower East Side had a strong Jewish presence. When I got over the bridge I was in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which was the home of many Hasidic Jews. Their distinctive dress makes them stand out in most places, but they were so common in Williamsburg after a while I did not notice the adults much. From having seen them elsewhere in New York I, without consciously thinking about it, assumed that none was good-looking, and all were frumpily dressed. (Does this make me prejudiced?) I had to reassess my views. The young orthodox boys fit my preconceptions, but many of the young girls were attractive and stylishly dressed. I found that there were discounted dress shops for girls in Williamsburg, and I bought the last dress that the daughter regularly wore at one of them. But the good looks and the stylishness of those young girls seemed to decline each year as they got older. Or maybe I just got older.
I did not stop in as many stores in Williamsburg as I did in the Lower East Side. While the Lower East Side shops were Jewish owned, they seemed to cater to all those who ventured in. The Hasid shops of Williamsburg primarily seemed to exist for other Hasids. I would stop occasionally in a bakery on my way home to get some poppy seed bread, but without the beard and sideburn ringlets and in my running clothes with uncovered arms and legs, I felt unwelcome and stopped going.
My running attire, however, did not prevent me from being stopped one Friday evening by an Orthodox Jew as a ran through his neighborhood. He politely inquired whether I was a Jewish. I said that I was not. He pressed on and asked if my purported lack of Jewishness was because I was a lapsed Jew. Again, I said that I was not. (I don’t know if it would have made a difference to him if I then knew what one of those DNA-testing companies much later told me—I am four percent Ashkenazi Jew) After determining this pedigree, he asked if I would do him the favor of coming into the house and turning off his over. He was forbidden to do so on the sabbath. This was the only time, and it was only because of running, that I got the experience of being a shabbat goy.
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