My story, which is by no means a fiction, nor a case of seductive exaggeration, could best be described as a Baltimore snafu (situation normal: all fucked up). It also takes place in a quintessential battle zone—that of my semiretired parents’ condo in a classically mixed neighborhood.
In recent years, this formerly sort-of-Black, sort-of-Jewish middle-class neighborhood has been almost entirely repopulated by a rapidly multiplying clan of middle-aged ultra-Orthodox Jews who speak with Hebraic accents. It’s hard to tell whether some of them are actually from Israel.
This increasingly dominant bunch has begun to change the flavor of the condo village considerably. Even though, as individuals, they are perfectly cool and easy to relate to—healthy, smart, good looking, etc.—as a group, they often feel strangely out of sync with the rest of the world. They can seem cultish, alien, almost from another century. The women sometimes come off like displaced mail-order brides. They dress with total conformity in identical dark skirts, tights, and sneakers. They wear obvious wigs, which make them all look a little like human-sized American Girl dolls.
The tribe, let’s call it, lives according to its own rules. I’d even say they try their best not to abide by the conventional rules of the condo village, or to any of the rules of Baltimore County. The common laws for the common good don’t seem to apply to these good people. And, let’s face it, laws aren’t always so common or fair. So I do, in some ways, respect their healthy sense of autonomy.
Hasidic Jews, in this regard, are kind of punk rock—to be commended for their aversion to straight laws and values. This clan is, in its own way, DIY.
I myself am a card-carrying rebel Jew, so really I’m a bit like them. And if a fight were to break out, I’d definitely want one of them—hopefully, one with Israeli military training—to “have my back.” However, I also possess the hypercritical gene: the Jewish trait that leads all of us to blame one another and ultimately to blame ourselves. What I’m saying is that we Jews basically suck. We are fucking awesome. But we suck.
And so Jews tend to follow their own set of rules, and they often step over the line. Like I did the other day when I was down at the park with my second Portuguese water dog, Ponyo. It was very hot and she was panting heavily, so I allowed her to stand up on her hind legs, balance her front paws on the ledge of the water fountain, and lap away, while I pressed the button.
This attracted the attention of an entire court of sweaty Black guys playing an aggressive game of basketball, who paused in the middle of a point to reprimand me for my uncivilized behavior.
I honestly didn’t realize it was such a no-no. But when I saw myself from their angle—oblivious whitey letting his designer dog drink from the human fountain—it was a rude awakening. Live and learn. And this is my point: Jews don’t necessarily always, or usually, live and learn. We don’t adjust. Instead, we ask the world to adjust to us. Jews are Jews because we never learn to stop acting like fucking Jews.
Anyway, down at the condo in Baltimore, when Friday rolls around and the sun sets, the Sabbath is on. Out they come, in small packs, walking to one of the many local micro-synagogues for evening services. They carry their prayer books. Some of the men wear outrageous, circular mink hats. They look happy. And holy. But you know what? They walk in the middle of the fucking road. Not even remotely off to the side. So when a driver, like, say, me, comes along, I’m forced to slow to, like, 3 miles per hour, and to ride my brake, waiting for an opportunity that never seems to come.
On Sabbath, it’s a given that the streets are no longer prioritized for motorists. And yet, come Monday morning, it’s another story entirely. On weekdays, this same network of roads is like a series of interlocking highways to hell. I’ve learned to belt up carefully in preparation for an airbag explosion, because I can feel the head-on collisions coming! One after the next, the minivans appear, gunning it down the middle of the double yellow lines. Every ultra-Orthodox carpooler seems to be challenging me to a game of chicken. Let’s call it “rebel Jews without a cause.” Mean-ass moms in jam-packed minivans carpooling their kippah-wearing kids to the nearest yeshiva.
This brings me to the unforgivable incident. As this controversial J.crew (Jew crew) has descended upon the elderly, antiquated Jews of my parents’ generation, the condo village has really gone downhill. What was designed, back in the ’70s, as a Louis Kahn-ish, brutalist utopia for tennis playing, lap swimming, sauna sitting Jewish swingers, has begun to show signs of serious entropy. The grounds look sparse and crappy and the concrete exterior walls of the building are beginning to crumble and fall into disrepair. A certain lawlessness pervades.
My suspicion is that some of the supersized families operate a kind of cartel of quasi home schools, day care centers, and tax-free places of worship. Meanwhile, the city no longer sees the neighborhood as part of its infrastructure. So trees go unpruned and pocked roads go unpaved. This seems to be how the J.crew wants it. They’ve created their own ghetto.
They have their own ambulances, their own speed bumps, and even their own road signs. My eye gets snagged every time I see the strange, mud-spattered, yellow road signs posted next to the speed bumps. “Speed Hump.” This is what happens when native Hebrew speakers custom-make their own unofficial road signs. And of course, no one from the city will ever come to hose off the mud.
One guy in the condo village has taken the improvised ghetto aesthetic all the way. Rather than build a proper fence around his back yard, which is actually directly across from the communal pool area, he runs a laundry line between two trees and drapes it with a series of giant blue plastic tarps like you’d get at Home Depot. No doubt, this is the cheapest path to privacy. Eyesore doesn’t even begin to describe this snafu, which instantaneously transforms my parents’ middle-class suburb into a shantytown. Even the hipster meth-heads living in Austin’s tent cities have a tidier aesthetic.
So where am I going with all this?
My story concerns a three-day solo visit in August, timed for maximum relaxation out by the pool. I arrived, hugged my folks, threw my bag on the guest room bed, and announced that I was going to head right down to the pool to swim some laps. I stuffed my goggles, my towel, the photo-ID’d guest pass that my mother had prepared for me, and a folded New York Times in a little tote, slipped into my Birks, and strolled past the decrepit, unused tennis courts to the still-pretty-vibrant pool area. But when I arrived at the gate, I found it was chained shut with a big steel padlock. A sign quickly written with a ballpoint pen read: “Pool closed due to weather.” I looked up to confirm. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Nor a single hint of thunder rumbling. It was just a “Perfect Day” (as Jew, I mean Lou, Reed once sang).
I went back up to my parents’ apartment and expressed my dismay. My dad, crushed that I wasn’t having the great visit we’d been planning all summer, immediately got on the horn with the woman who managed the complex, inquiring why the pool was closed on such a perfect August day during regular hours. I watched him nod with a look of deep concern. His dark, expressive eyebrows jumped around like tarantulas on his forehead. He hung up and broke it to me that the pool was not closed due to inclement weather. The sign was a lie. The truth—and it was very hard for him to say this to me—was that some kid had left a bowel movement floating in the shallow end for the fourth day in a row. So for health reasons, the pool was now undergoing an extensive detox. Apparently, there was a serial defecator in the community.
I was pissed. But I hustled into the guest room, popped a Xanax, buried my face in my phone, and somehow managed to forget all about it. Tomorrow would be a new day, and the pool would be a tonic once again.
And it was. I went down early with my goggles and stuff, prepared to swim laps. Problem: the new Jews had invaded the old Jews’ territory and transformed the ordinarily tranquil pool area into a free-for-all. It was like summer camp without counselors—wild, screaming children on speed. It was basically a pool party. Everyone was enjoying everything. Kosher pizzas had been delivered and at least five big flat cardboard boxes were thrown open right on the concrete deck, inches from the curved rim of the shallow end. Babies in diapers, who were normally quarantined in the kiddie pool, now had carte blanche to access the adult pool. Numerous kids were doggy paddling around the deep end in hopes of passing their “deep water test.”
I watched in amazement as an adorable (OK, hot) Israeli student-lifeguard counted to 60 while a little squirt treaded water. At the big number, there was an explosion of festive cheers from a group of mothers, aunts, and grandmothers sitting off to the side under an umbrella.
I found a few lounge chairs in a shady spot and gazed into the ether. Soon, my dad hobbled in past the gate, glad to join me in his matching Life is Good cap. He carefully lowered himself into the chaise next to mine and began crinkling the pages of his Wall Street Journal. I directed my attention to his other daily subscription, The New York Times. Like father, like son. We were pretty much set now to just mind our own business. Eventually, when the kids took a break, I’d swim my laps—but I wasn’t going to stress over it. I could see that the elderly woman (one of the Old Jews) in the lap lane had timed it all wrong. Every time she passed into the shallow end, she was interrupted by three kids who kept crossing under the roped-off lane divider.
And then the lifeguard blew the crap out of her whistle. Quickly descending the ladder of her elevated seat, she began calling urgently for everyone to get out of the pool and even exit the pool area. It was jarring, to say the least—especially for my 80-year-old dad, who doesn’t tackle logistics swiftly.
My midsummer pool day done, I thought, just like that? Was someone hurt? Had one of the little kids drowned? My father and I peered over our newspapers like two vaudeville actors in a choreographed schtick. The elderly lap swimmer pulled up her goggles in disbelief. By now, the lifeguard had grabbed the 12-foot skimmer pole and was extending its mesh basket into the shallow end. Carefully, she lifted something small and brown from the sparkling, crystal-clear water. As the cabal of children, parents, and grandparents toweled off and packed up their belongings disinterestedly, a few of the older girls gathered the partially eaten slices on paper plates and closed the pizza boxes. They all appeared to have accepted the sudden change in the weather.
This was the moment when a fist of moral outrage formed in my gut and some mysterious force of action grabbed me by the balls. I stood up and walked toward the lifeguard. With each step across the pool deck, I could feel a volcanic eruption beginning to quake. “I’d like to know WHO THE FUCK TOOK A SHIT IN THE GOD DAMN FUCKING POOL?!?!?!?,” I screamed.
I panned left and then right. And what did I see? The lifeguard, the parents, the grandparents, the children, and even the OG lap swimmer, all agape. A wigged mother holding a kid wearing nothing but a soaking wet diaper shot right back with: “Watch your language!” She followed up with a reminder that there were “children present!”
“Watch my language? Why don’t you watch your SHIT?” I yelled back, knowing that the tide was turning against me. An actual child yelled from across the pool: “You can’t speak to us that way!” And I understood that I, and not the shitter, had instantly become persona non grata. They weren’t scared of me. And it became a pile-on. To shame the guy who dropped the F-bomb.
“The guilty party is here, among us,” I announced, as I pictured that kangaroo court scene at the end of Fritz Lang’s M, where Peter Lorre gets called out for his crime. “One of you knows damn well who did this,” I shouted. “Was it you?” I pointed to one of the toddlers from the deep water test, who, rather than looking scared, continued to nibble off the edge of a cold pizza crust as he regarded me.
And then, yes! My dad was up on two. He folded his paper and headed over to back me up, fully prepared to put his pediatric expertise to use. “This is bad parenting,” he said, scolding the entire group. “Shame on you.” His eyebrows spiked up like the raised hair on the back of an angry dog. I regarded my old man with new respect. We were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, guns drawn.
By now, the elderly lap lady was standing behind an aluminum walker, bathing cap still on. “You know, we can’t be entirely certain it was a young person who did this,” she croaked.
“Good point,” I said, confused as to which side she was on. Had she meant to implicate herself in the crime?
Then everyone simply began to file out past the gate. I was still in shock, standing next to my dad, when a boy of about 8 stopped on his way out and looked me squarely in the eyes. With all of the authority of a mini attorney general, he said: “I think you make a good point, but you might try a different delivery.”
I held out my fist for a bump. “I hear ya, big guy.” The big guy left me hanging.
Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.