American Girls

In the first grade, I made friends with a little girl named Ellen.  From the public school.  Every day we sat together at the same table in the cafeteria  And every day she brought the same strange food for lunch.

It was a sandwich filled with a stack of flat pink floppy circles of a uniform size and shape seemingly designed to fit just within the borders of its Wonder Bread exterior.

I had never seen such a thing and so I asked her what it was.  She said it was baloney.  At first, I didn’t believe her.  We had baloney but it was nothing like this stuff.  Ours came in a long red tube.  My mother cut off uneven chunks and put them in the frying pan with our eggs.

More confusing still, Ellen would sprinkle two packets of sugar onto her sandwich before eating it.  We never sweetened our baloney and eggs so I asked why she is using sugar.

She insisted that it was not sugar; it was salt.  Now, I definitely knew the difference between sugar and salt.  Sure, they were both white and sandy, but sugar crystals were small and tasted like candy and salt crystals were large and tasted like pretzels.

Anyway, one day Ellen invited me over to her house after school.  We were playing in her room when her grandmother came in to say hello.

This is the moment all reason took flight.  Her grandmother was tall and slim.  She wore pants — pants! — and when she spoke, she sounded more or less like us kids and our parents.  She didn’t speak in that silly way my grandmother liked to talk.

See, Ellen was my first non-Jewish friend and this was my first visit to a non-Jewish home.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, my family life was really very shtetled.

We never ate in restaurants.  We never ate by the goyim.  I was completely unfamiliar with concepts like “lunch meat” and “table salt”.  Many years later, I would sample of the treyf during my early adult fudspringa.  (After awhile, I decided I really wasn’t missing anything and came back to the kosher kitchen.)

Also, the older relatives, the older people from the shul, they were all immigrants, refugees, survivors from Europe.  Every one of them spoke a half-Yiddish, half-English tongue, one and all with a heavy accent.  So much was this the case that I had thought I would start to talk in this way, too, when I got to be old.

After I started working, I began to travel, both for business and pleasure.  I have had opportunity to taste of many cuisines and partake of many cultures.  But nothing has ever surprised me quite like that first exposure to mainstream middle class America.

© 2013 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

The Sponge

There was an episode on Seinfeld where Elaine finds out that her preferred prophylactic — “The Sponge” — is being discontinued.  In a panic, she races around Manhattan buying contraceptive puffs until the store shelves are empty and her closets are full.

Me, I am not so particular when it comes to the health and beauty products.  Oh, who my kidding?  I am particular about a lot things.  Many, many things.  Most things.  Well, pretty much everything.  OK, everything.  Absolutely everything.

And of all the things I am particular about — which in case I didn’t mention, is everything — I am most particular about what I put into my body.

Always the Alvarado flax seed bread.  Never the soy crunch.  Never the sprouted barley.  Paper stick Q-tips?  Yes please.  Plastic stick?  No thanks.  Only the Reach spearmint woven dental floss.  Forget the Oral-B.  Forget the cinnamon.  Forget the waxed.

And for twenty-five years — twenty-five years — Tampax slender regular tampons.  With the cardboard applicator.  In the pink box.  Period.

They were always hard to find.  It’s a small target audience.  But, now?  They are nowhere.  Poof.  Vanished.  Disappeared.

I try all the CVSs, all the Walgreens, all the Safeways.  In Palo Alto and Menlo Park.  I check with stores off the beaten path, like the Target.  I check with stores off the high road, like the Walmart.  I check and check and check and check.

Failing to complete my mission through the normal channels, I calm myself with thoughts of Amazon.com.  They have everything.  Absolutely everything.

Back home, I rush to the internet and start my search.  I feel great relief when I see the results.  Amazon to the rescue!  A three-box package!  Whew!  I expel the breath I didn’t realize I was holding.

Wait a minute.  The item is marked “currently unavailable”.  My heart starts to pound.  I will get my period any day.  I have checked my gym bag.  I have checked my brief case.  I have checked my travel kit.  I have checked my car.  Dash and trunk.  Alas, I have scrounged only three slender regulars to add to my tiny stash.

It’s OK, I tell myself, it’s fine.  They’ll be back in stock for the next time.  So, you’ll use something else this month.  You just have to get through one period.  Anyone can get through one period.

I want to place an order, but there is no Add to Cart button.  I look more closely.  I fill with dread.  I read “we don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock”.  They may not know, but I do.  I have seen this sentence during previous electronic shopping excursions.  It means the slender regulars are gone.  It means they are gone for good.

I learn that Customers Who Bought Tampax Slender Regulars Also Bought Annie’s Homegrown Cheddar Bunnies.  This is not helpful.  Who in their right mind would substitute snack crackers for a tampon?  Even the crackers are whole grain and organic, no one would do this.  Please!

I start rapid cycling through web stores.  drugstore.com.  overstock.com.  costco.com.  sears.com.  No.  No.  No.  No.

Oh, I know!  I will order directly from the manufacturer.  Oh, no!  I will not.  Even Proctor & Gamble is out of stock.  What is going on here?  Was there a baby boom that produced an army of girls who are now depleting the nation’s inventory of teen size feminine hygiene products?

Suddenly, I am feeling strange.  In a way I never felt like before.  Not in my whole life.  I am not positive but I think that what I am feeling may be what is known as anxiety.  Normally, I just can’t panic.  It is not my nature.  If my vital signs were any lower, I would be dead.  Still, I think I may be in an actual tizzy.

But I am not done; no, I am far from defeated.  This fat lady has not yet begun to sing.  I am not ready to surrender because there is eBay.  Where the people go when they must find the unfindable.  When they will pay absolutely any price.

But where to look?  Under the Health & Beauty?  Or maybe by the Collectibles?

© 2013 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

U-Bet!

It will be Pesach in a few hours.  I should run over to the Mollie Stone’s and pick up some things.  Mollie’s has the most extensive selection of kosher food in town.

I wonder if the market will be overrun by last-minute shoppers.  I imagine no parking, crowded aisles, and empty shelves.  I suspect this is how the goyim feel when they must go to the toy store the last day before Christmas.

Maybe there is nothing so urgent.  My natural superfood meal plan is good to go 364 days a year.

Some while back, me and my friend Elaine got to talking about the Passover foods of our youth.  Uy, how I hated the processed, preserved, packaged provisions that plagued us for eight long days.

The tasteless and crumbly plain matzah in the cardboard box was no substitute for the sweet and pliable seedless rye we got from Dave Jacobs’ bakery on the nights that were not different from all other nights.

The canned macaroons were sticky to the touch and tasted nothing like a Mounds bar — the closest we’d ever come to a real coconut.  You would chew and chew these so-called cookies only to form a dry paste that never felt quite ready to swallow.

Worst of all were the jars of gefilte fish.  The plops — which bore no resemblance to flounder or tuna or salmon in appearance or texture or flavor — floated around in this disgusting gelatinous goop like some science experiment gone badly wrong.

(In her diary, Anne Frank writes that she and the others hiding in the secret annex had to urinate and defecate into glass jars.  The first time I read this, an image of those gefilte fish jars immediately sprung to mind.)

But, I told Elaine, there was one thing that I really, really, really liked and that was Fox’s U-bet, a chocolate-flavored syrup.  We only got to have it during Pesach and we used it to make chocolate milk, so much better than an egg cream.

Fox’s U-bet was different from all other chocolate syrups.  The special ingredient was milk powder, which gave it a kind of malted quality.  Otherwise, it was terribly sweet and unsophisticated.  I just loved it.

A few weeks later, Elaine brought to me a gift.  A large jar of U-bet!  It was absolutely perfect.  An exodus from the ordinary.  A liberation for the palate.  It made me to feel very, very happy.

Chag sameach!

© 2013 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

A Great Adventure

My powers of persuasion apparently at their peak, I had scored unheard of privileges in the weeks prior to my high school graduation.

First, I had gone on the Senior Class Trip.  True, it was only to Grossinger’s, a now-defunct Borscht Belt resort in the Catskills, but still, it had been an overnight trip.  In fact, it was the very first time that I had slept in a bed away from home, not counting hospital beds.

Next, I had gone to the Senior Prom.  My mother would have killed me had she known the after party had alcoholic beverages but no parental supervision.  No matter, the zipper on my dress jammed two inches down leaving my options for trouble (and comfort) extremely limited.

Finally, I had arranged to go with school friends on a completely unsanctioned visit to Great Adventure and Jungle Habitat in Jackson, New Jersey.  Sure, it was just for the day but it was my first time outside the state of New York.  The only items on the agenda were mayhem and high jinx.

Great Adventure, an amusement park known for its wild rides, was where we got stuck on the Log Flume.

They only allowed four people per “log”, but we snuck in two additional friends to make a snug six-some.  With the stowaways on board, our log was overweight and got frozen at a 45° angle halfway up the big ramp.  The whole ride came to a screeching halt.  We were up there for about an hour during which we could not stop laughing.  The employees?  The other riders?  Not terribly amused.

Jungle Habitat, a drive-through “safari” known for its wild animals, was where we got attacked by the baboons.

The park required a waiver exempting the facility of liability for any damages to your vehicle, property, or person caused by the freely roaming wildlife.  Though he was driving his parents’ brand-new convertible, my friend Danny signed without giving it a second thought.  Turns out we were lucky it was only the canvas roof that got mauled by the large monkeys.  Future visitors were not so fortunate.

All-in-all, it was a great day.  Despite our brushes with danger, we returned home exhausted but unscathed.

My freedom, alas, ended the same way it had started.  Suddenly and for no reason.  My mother restored my normal status of “grounded” for the duration.  Even so, my brief parole had indeed been a great adventure.

© 2013 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Shopping Bags

On Monday night, the Palo Alto City Council voted to ban plastic bags from all shops and restaurants and to require that these establishments charge customers for paper bags.

Everybody’s talking bags today.  For bags.  Against bags.  Bags, bags, bags.  All the day long.

Now, I have been an avid bag re-user since 1987.  Years and years before even the natural, sustainable markets began knocking off a nickel if you bring your own bag.

And when I re-use, I really re-use.  Dozens and dozens of times.  My brown paper bags are practically vintage.  The graphics on the bags?  Faded and antiquated.  The texture of the bags?  Soft and supple.

So I was checking out at the Trader Joe’s and the cashier was admiring my bags.  We agreed that they seem to get stronger with age.  Then he asks me, “So what do you use on them?  Saddle soap?”

Saddle soap!  On the brown paper bags!  As if they were leather!  We both had a good laugh.  Let the bag wars begin!

© 2013 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Helly Kitty

I don’t really care for cats.  Except for the Stray Cats.  But I do care to be a good host.  So when the neighbor’s cat “Kitty” followed me inside the house one day, I offered her skim milk and tuna fish.

She seemed to enjoy her snack.  At least she kept walking by me, brushing her sides against my leg and purring.  After a while she left and I got back to work.

The next afternoon, I heard meowing and scratching by the stoop.  I opened the door to find Kitty had returned.  She invited herself in and scurried to the kitchen.  So I gave her milk and tuna.  Again she did the brushing and purring thing.

And the next afternoon, the same thing happened once more.  I didn’t really mind.  The ex-man was away on business and it was nice to have some company.  I made a special trip to buy more tuna.  We already had plenty of milk.

But the next day, the ex-man comes home.  Within moments he is wheezing, coughing, and sneezing.  See, he is a highly allergic man…

Him to me:  It’s like there’s been a cat in here!

Me to him:  Kitty’s been visiting.

Him to me:  You let a cat in the house?

Me to him:  She comes over for lunch.

Him to me:  You feed her?

Me to him:  Just skim milk and tuna fish.  She likes it.

Needless to say, Kitty would not be invited to dine any time soon.  When I heard her outside the front door the next day, I had to be strong and ignore the scratching and meowing.  Kind of like sleep training a baby.  It was heartbreaking.  And I don’t even like cats.

© 2013 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Harriet the Spy

It is two years ago on this date that my mother died.

I say kaddish and light the yahrtzeit candles by the regular calendar.  This is not kosher.  We are supposed to do these things by the Jewish calendar.  But the 5th of Adar is just not meaningful to me.  March 11, however, it’s like a tattoo on my head.

At the time of her death, none of us three kids could recall a happy memory, a funny story, even a moment of warmth involving my mother.

Since then, my mind has been flooded with memories of words and deeds long forgotten.  These are not pleasant thoughts.  My mother haunts from the grave.

Anyway, the other day I’m bundling items for donation and my very favorite childhood book catches my attention: Harriet the Spy, a preteen novel about a young girl who spies on friends and neighbors.  I had completely forgotten about Harriet!

See, my mother moved while I was away at college.  Upon returning for the winter break, I found she had elected not to keep my meager belongings.  Even my guitar was gone.

The only things that survived were a few items kept with me at school.

My Jewish star, given to me by my grandmother after she made pilgrimage to Israel.  I wear this around my neck, always, since I am ten years old.  It is the only material possession that I truly treasure.

My Wishnik, given to me by my grandmother the time I stayed overnight in the hospital to have my tonsils out.  This little guy has stood guard on my bedroom dresser in every home since I am five.

My Orange Giraffy, a small stuffed animal given to me by our family friend and bon vivant Herbie Swersky, may he rest in peace.  Or did Herbie give me Purple Bunny?  Probably both.

And my paperback copy of Harriet the Spy.  A book that almost never came to my world.

By the elementary school, they had a program called the Scholastic Book Club.  Every month, we would get a brochure advertising popular and classic books for young readers.  Paperbacks at reasonable prices.  This is before Amazon.  My mother allowed us to pick one book each month.

Harriet the Spy book coverOne glance at the book cover and I was completely sold.  I wanted to be a spy!  I wanted to wear blue jeans and a red hoodie!  I wanted to have zany adventures!  I filled out the order form eagerly checking the box for Harriet the Spy

But then I found out all my friends were getting a Brady Bunch book.  Admittedly, I identified with the the over-shadowed, under-attractive, near-sighted Jan.  Foolishly, I sacrificed the intrepid Harriet in favor of the insipid Bradys.  I would never have dared to ask for two books.  I would never have dared to ask for anything.

When my mother gave me the check to bring to school, I saw something shocking.  She must have seen my erasures because my mother added Harriet the Spy back to the order.  I would be getting two books.  It was a surprise.  It was a nice surprise.

A small act of kindness from my mother.  I keep hoping I’ll remember something better.  Something really special.  It doesn’t seem likely.  But at least I have Harriet.

© 2013 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.