BY CHANA SHAPIRO / AJT //
It was 1975, and I was standing in a long line at one of six checkout counters, staffed by six surly cashiers, at Waldbaum’s supermarket in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
I had a hungry, four-year-old sitting on a raised seat of the baby carriage in which my one-year-old sat, nibbling a piece of old pretzel. She sat amidst two packages of Pampers, two cans of tomato soup, two boxes of macaroni, two bags of frozen green beans, two bunches of bananas, and two cans of mushroom pieces. I remember this clearly because it was the day that I finally decided, “I can’t take this anymore!”
I couldn’t take it anymore because every few days I’d schlep my kids to Waldbaum’s. Most items had a two-to-a-customer limit, including Pampers, which sometimes had a one-to-a-customer limit. I’d often make several trips in one day, to get what we needed before noon, when the shelves were depleted of everything good.
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When my husband, Zvi, came home from work and asked what we’d done all day, I’d typically answer, “We were at Waldbaum’s.” It was bad for our daughters, too: they’d already spent too much time with surly cashiers.
Rachel was in pre-school every afternoon, allowing me to put Sara in a lightweight umbroller, carry her in it on the subway steps, to go to the library or playgroup a few stops away. In decent weather, I’d push the big carriage, and we’d walk miles to shop or visit.
When Rachel wasn’t in school, I’d put her in the umbroller and settle Sara in a carrier on my back, to go to zoos, parks or museums.
We had a car, but it was either impossible or expensive to park it anywhere, so we always used a bus or subway. New York has an “alternate side of the street” rule, so we moved our auto every other day. (They say it’s to clean the streets, but I think it’s just to make New Yorkers tough.)
Exciting and Exhausting
Wednesday is a free day, so I’d wake at dawn on Tuesday to find a two-day spot, or put our kids in the car Wednesday morning and drive around looking for a spot. It could take an hour or more.
New York is one of the most exciting and stimulating places on earth. It’s full of Jewish stimulation, educational opportunities, cultural offerings, shopping and ethnic experiences. My life was full of grocery shopping and worrying that our daughters would grow up to be competitive and pushy.
The morning of my 1975 declaration in Waldbaum’s had begun with a stalled elevator (we lived on the fifth floor of our apartment building) and notification that the water was turned off for repairs. I was primed for a getaway, but to where?
Zvi was offered a job in Atlanta. We arrived in July, 1976, and here’s what happened during our first week.
Several women from our new synagogue, Ahavath Achim, brought us fruit baskets, and one man, Marvin Hirsch, gifted us with a huge pumpernickel he’d bought on a trip to New York. He figured we’d miss the great “Jewish” food of the Big Apple.
The rebbitzen, Reva Epstein, and her friend, Sarah Alterman, rang the doorbell while I was neck-deep unpacking and also working on toilet-training our almost two-year old. I had a “potty” set up near the front door.
Sara was sitting on it, banging a wooden spoon on a box. Half-unpacked cartons were all over the floor, and piles of underwear were stacked on the furniture where my visitors should have been invited to sit.
Mrs. Epstein and Mrs. Alterman smiled knowingly, as they maneuvered through the mess. I couldn’t offer anything to eat or drink because I didn’t know where my dishes were and had no adult food in the house. Mrs. Epstein asked if I felt OK, because I kept rubbing my forehead while trying to be charming, praying they’d keep this little encounter a secret.
I admitted that I had a splitting headache. Mrs. Epstein forced me to sit on one of the underwear piles, took off her hat, and stood behind me, massaging my temples. Mrs. Alterman found an empty spot for the flowers and fruit they’d brought. Sara, experiencing success on her potty, got up, expecting approbation. She got it from both visitors, who clapped as only seasoned grandmothers do. Then they left.
Doris Goldstein, a member of the synagogue board, had taken Rachel to her house that morning. Rachel was happy to get away from the chaos. That afternoon Doris returned my daughter with a big supply of chocolate chip cookies.
After a week of constant culture shock, I decided to splurge on a long-distance phone call to my best Brooklyn friend, Cheryl. I told her our car was parked in the driveway, one of our bathrooms had two sinks, and we had a backyard, in which there was a playhouse. I’d received a head massage from our rebbitzen, who’d applauded Sara’s potty achievement.
I told her that neighbors kept knocking on our door, with house plants and advice about groceries, cleaning, drugstores and the nearest library. I’d driven to A & P, bought the kids ice cream and stopped at the library, and parked my car at each destination.
Men offered to carry my heavy groceries, and cashiers called me “Ma’am.” People smiled at us and asked our daughters their names. When I dropped a book, a stranger ran to pick it up.
Some people noticed the New York plates on our car. They asked what part of New York we came from, and Rachel enjoyed answering, “We’re from Brooklyn. It’s really far away.” Cheryl had to agree: we weren’t in Brooklyn anymore.
About the writer
Chana and her family came to Atlanta, intending to try it for a while. It’s been 37 years, and they have no plans to leave. As it turned out, though, half of the people they now know are from New York, and she and Zvi have encountered quite a few surly cashiers Yet, Chana remains hopeful that the gentility, manners and congeniality of the 1976 south will rise again.