Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bel Air

On a snow-covered Sunday morning in February I sloshed through suburban Kansas City in my family’s rusting, forest green Bel Air with my friend Tom. Fifty white boxes stuffed with bagels, lox and cream cheese were stacked on the back seat. The night before I had stayed up all night with my B’nai B’rith Youth Organization chapter preparing the prepaid packages for delivery to Jewish families throughout Kansas City, the group’s annual fundraiser.

I drove through the winding streets of a Leawood, Kan., subdivision clinging to the steering wheel, exhausted. Tom, who was Catholic, sat beside me munching on leftover, unclaimed Lender’s bagels.

The Chevy Bel Air, the first car my dad had purchased new, in 1966, had by 1978 known prouder times. Rust spotted the body and covered the roof; the front seat was marred by gaping holes, which my father had concealed with prickly seat covers. The trunk was inexplicably sealed shut (Tom said that missing Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa was buried there) and so was the glove compartment, which Tom was always trying frantically to pry open.

We drove by graceful, upper-middle-class homes, the yards buried in mounds of snow glazed with crystals glinting in the sun, past manicured bushes bestriding a curving driveway, the cold and sun outside, the car warm inside … and then I fell asleep – and was awoken by a bang that jolted me forward. I had rolled onto someone’s yard, smack into a tree.

Tom and I were uninjured and so was the Bel Air. The shock of the crash wore off, and then we both stared. The glove compartment was open.

“I can’t believe it!” Tom exclaimed, laughing hysterically. “Hey, maybe the keys to the trunk are in here!” Immediately he went to work exploring the long mysterious interior of the glove compartment.

“What’s in there?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Tom answered disappointedly, head down, rummaging through the glove compartment’s contents: “… a manual … gas receipts … an ice scraper … a piece of paper with something typed on it …”

“Let me see that paper,” I said, snatching it out of his hand.

I looked down and read what was typed at the top of the page: “Shake Hands with Your Uncle Manis, My Boy.”

“Wow! This is one of my Uncle David’s famous poems,” I said more to myself than to Tom. “It must have been sitting in there for 10 years.”

Tom looked uninterested. My uncle, I figured, presented the work I held in my hand at a family get-together possibly as far back as 1966, when I was only five years old. My father must have stashed this, his copy of his brother’s poem, in the glove compartment on the way home from the gathering.

Reading the verses brought to mind one of my uncle’s more recent performances. My family had gathered at a local restaurant to celebrate the imminent marriage of one of my cousins ...

A normally reserved, unassuming man – balding, medium height, wearing glasses – stands at the front of a banquet room and tells by heart the story of how my cousin met her fiancĂ© – and leads the assembled family on a rhyming roller coaster ride.

Speaking slowly, as if talking to children, he pushes them out of the gate – Then one evening Susan was at a farewell party being given for someone named “Jan.” He leads them around the bend – across the room she spied a tall, dark and handsome man. Carefully he takes them up the hill – She had to restrain herself from doing anything rash – pauses before the last rhyme, then sends them careening down the slope – for standing next to him was a short fella with a mustache. The room bursts into laughter.

... I stared past the poem propped up on the green steering wheel. Tom got out of the car. I thought about the last time I had seen my uncle ...

I’m in the lobby of our synagogue, Beth Shalom, after services. A big crowd has formed. I stand there expecting to see relatives and friends, fearing small talk. I spot Uncle David maybe five conversations away from me. I look in his direction, but I don’t go say hello to him.

I see a friend from Hebrew school days; we talk football. I look over at Uncle David again, still in the same spot, speaking to his sister-in-law. I want to talk to him. I’m just afraid I’ll get there and have nothing to say. I doubt that it matters to him, anyway.

Later on, after most people have headed toward the parking lot, we find ourselves next to each other. I say, “Hi.” He replies, “I didn’t think you were ever going to talk to me.”

... I stuck the poem on top of the dashboard, pleased to have rediscovered it: a lost family treasure written by a quiet man who found ways to let his friends and family know how he felt about them.

Tom stood outside by the tree looking at the front of the car.

“Any dent?” I asked.

“It’s hard to tell,” he answered. “There were so many dents here already.”

“Good.”

I returned the poem to the glove compartment and closed it, to hide evidence of the crash. Tom pushed the car off the yard as I steered, the tires making silent tracks in the snow.