Menachem's Writings

The Crimes of the Boy Downstairs

Growing up, we lived in the Sydney suburb of Coogee, in Brook Street. I have very fond childhood memories -- lots of friends and interesting characters -- although my cousin insists that we grew in a very poor part of Sydney. Our claim to fame though was that Mel Gibson and Ron Casey lived up the road.

We lived in a block of flats, like most families in our area. Thinking back, it was a working class neighbourhood, largely Catholic. A little up the road from us was our tiny synagogue. A few buildings further up the hill was the small Anglican Church. And right on the crest of the hill was the tall spire of the enormous Catholic Church. Looking towards Coogee from the neighbouring suburb of Clovelly you cannot miss the steeple; it dominates the skyline and the sky.

Downstairs from us lived my best friend Peter. He was (and still is) a year older than me, but we were almost inseparable. We had many adventures together. There were nine flats (what Americans call apartments) in our entrance -- Peter's family lived in the first one by the entrance. We lived immediately above them with one of Peter's uncles on our floor. On the floor above lived another uncle. (A third uncle didn't live too far away, and we saw a lot of him too because they were a close family.) Peter's extended family was quite a dominant aspect of my childhood.

The marvels of modern, space-age technology; after a long lapse, I made contact with Peter again a few days ago. I found him as a friend's friend's (ditto) on FaceBook. He got back to me on Skype. We've been catching up on old times. I think he remembers our childhood better than I do -- or he embellishes better than me -- I admit to having selective memory. He puts his kids to bed at night by boring them with our antics. They have their favourites which he repeats on request. And now I'm going to bore you all with one.

He reminded me of this episode, which I, perhaps very conveniently, have no recollection. When we were small, supermarkets were still unknown in Australia. You did your shopping at the local grocer, greengrocer, fish shop or butcher (unless you wanted kosher -- getting our meat, that's another story). Jewish grocers, Italian fruit and vegetables, Greek fishmongers and Australian meat and poultry stockers. It was all on ethnic lines. (We also had milk delivered to the door, but since he was gone before we awoke, we never determined his ethnicity, or his sex for that matter -- maybe she came early.) You knew all these people by names and they knew you too -- "Good morning Mrs Roosevelt, good afternoon Mr Menzies".

The supermarkets started in a small way. First they killed the grocers (my father was one), later the fruit and veggies, and much later they put in freezers and killed the meat and fish persons. Two supermarkets opened up at around the same time on our main drag, Coogee Bay Road, one called Franklins and the second Flemings.

Peter remembers visiting Flemings one day after school when he was maybe ten years old, and "lifting" a little blue torch [flashlight is the way the American version of Harry Potter translates the word torch]. I guess Pete was proud of his prowess and he told me what he had done, showing me the prized object. Wow! Now I won't say that it was because of my love of social justice -- it was just as likely jealousy -- that I told my mother, who told his mother, who told his father.

It sure hit the fan! Our parents may not have had very much in this world, especially after surviving the terrible atrocities of the recent war, but they were proud, hard-working and honest. And their ideas of how to bring up their children was extremely focused. Corporal punishment was often the order of the day (one hit, especially with a belt*, and everything calmed down, surprisingly quickly) and exile was always a threat. And it was a real threat, "If you don't behave, I'll send you to boarding school for a year or two". It was real, because someone close to us all actually did spend a year at the dreaded boarding school in the nearby, picturesque mountain city of Katoomba.

Peter's father called him over, and inquired as to the source of the torch. "I found it daddy" [that's what we called our old men in those days]. "No you didn't -- you stole it! from Flemings". The jig ** was up! The word was out. The world around began to crumble before Peter's eyes.

Peter was sure he was going to get the stuffing knocked out of him or, or maybe and, he was going to be banished to a far corner of the empire for at least two lifetimes. He was crying, bawling, screaming. But his father didn't strike, nor did he move towards the telephone to call that institution in Katoomba. He just calmly said, "We're going back to Flemings to return the torch".

Now our ten year old freaked. This was a bigger inequity than a four lifetime deportation. This was the ultimate ostracism -- the criminal to encounter his victim, face-to-face, and admit his crime. Peter's father took him by the hand and off they went, on the longest, most gruelling trip of Pete's entire life. The normally two minute walk this time just went on and on -- maybe for a hundred years. Life just flashed before, many times, in black and white and even in colour, forwards, backwards, rewinds, up, down, into the ground, yes, yes, that's the best escape, just slowly sink into the ground. "Daddy, no, no -- I'm not going there." "Son, no-one in family every stole anything, none of my thirteen siblings, not in my parents' generation, nor in my grandparents, not ever, ever . . . .We can't have this behaviour." "Daddy, I promise, promise . . . never ever again!"

Either he had pity on his wretched son, or he knew beforehand it would end this way, the lesson having been learned. No-one with our parents accents really wanted to go into some unknown goy [gentile] and confirm to him that his precious Jewish son really was a thief. So Mr Peter carefully placed the torch on the ground, and with one swift movement of his foot, smashed it to smithereens. "Clean up the mess kid."

Now Peter says he hasn't forgiven me yet for this, and is still plotting his revenge . . . but on the other hand admits that it could be due my unwitting action that he is a lawyer today, and not the client of one.

15th August, 2008        

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* Belt Indeed downstairs it was a belt. But not in our domain. I guess my poor father didn't want to run around the house chasing me with his pants around his ankles -- too inefficient. In our home the dreaded punishment/torture tool was the fa kanál, the Hungarian wooden kitchen stirring spoon. Its application was across the buttocks. It was the most enormous thing you have ever seen, and when woken from its deep slumber, called into action against some poor kid, it sprouted these long, lanky legs. With these it could outrun Carl Lewis let alone a petrified poor seven year old. After it limbered up it became agile, fleet footed, super fast. There was no possible escape from its clutches (I still hear its snarl). It was determined, and always got you in the end -- always, every time. Resistance was useless.

** The jig is up The expression suggests that the dance is over and that the time has come to pay the fiddler. However, its derivation is more complicated. 'Jig' is a very old term for a lively dance, but in Elizabethan times the word became slang for a practical joke or a trick. 'The jig is up' - meaning your trick or game is finished, has been exposed, we're onto you now - derives from this obsolete slang word, not the 'jig' that is a lively dance.

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