There was no lack of characters in my Old Neighborhood—the sad lady in ragged clothes and with long, tangled, filthy hair who wandered along, talking to herself; the five-man harmony singing group in front of The Cozy Corner, our local candy store and hangout, who sang ‘50s and ’60s hits until they disappeared into the bloody maw of Vietnam, never to return; the various rabbis and holy men who walked along, discussing Torah, making our streets sound more like Jerusalem.
And then, there was Dave, the Window Cleaner. He was what we would call “challenged,” today; back then, he was called ah nebbichel, a simpleton, schlepping his brushes and bucket along, on his way from one balebusteh’s apartment to the next, as the Jewish housewives spread the word that “Dave does a good job for a few dollars, and the rabbi says it’s a mitzvah, a good deed, to give him the work.” My mother hired him, too. With all those tall, twenty-story apartment buildings stretching from the East River to Essex Street, Dave had plenty to do.
He was fearless. I can recall watching in awe while he took off his jacket—it was a wool Shabbos jacket that someone had given him, with seams pulled and holes gaping from the pockets where he had stored his cleaning materials, and who knows what else?—and dropped it on the floor near my mother’s golden-brown Kracauer “home grand” piano, which my sister and I took lessons on.
Our piano teacher, Mrs. Ida Wellerson, whose brochure proclaimed her to be “the Creator of a Unique Monkey Doll that had taken first prize at the Dutchess County Fair,” had already resolved that neither Pearl nor I would be any threat to Van Cliburn, who had but lately returned from dazzling the Russians while on his Grand Tour. When she came to give me a lesson, I knew how to delay the inevitable by offering to sharpen her pencils—she always had a handful, mostly blunt; I believe that she sharpened them with a small pocketknife, while we boasted a genuine pencil sharpener, mounted on the wall of the “utility closet,” where our industrial chemist father kept a stash of flat metal paint cans with mysterious names like “Benzene,” “Paint Remover,” and “Phenophthalene.” I would take as much time as possible sharpening Mrs. Wellerson’s pencils, until she cleared her throat significantly, and would bring them back after flamboyantly blowing off the shavings.
As for Dave, I marveled at his calm demeanor as he yanked up the stubborn grey-metal storm windows of our apartment (we and our neighbors always called it our “house,” which it was, after all), took soapy bucket in one hand, brush in the other, and squeegee linked to his belt, and climbed out onto the precarious perch to sit on the windowsill, pulling the window down onto his lap, leaving most of himself outside, with nothing but thin air and his upper body, a full seven stories up.
His arms would execute a beautiful pas de deux as he drew elaborate S-bends on the window-glass, scrubbing away the accumulated grit and filth of our legendary New York air. Those were the days of incinerators—who knew, or cared, about air pollution?—when my special chore was to take the garbage out, and I took a special secret pleasure in placing any discarded glass jars into the hopper and yanking back the handle, giving the bottle or jar a “bit of English”—that is, sufficient spin to propel it down to the flames, while it crashed and tinkled against the brick shaftway on its way down. Who said that dumping garbage into a private municipal bonfire couldn’t be fun? All that smoke went into the air, into our citified lungs, and onto the window-glass, as well. We breathed it in when we stood behind a diesel bus; we absorbed the fumes and odors of the subway-trains, a mixture of electric sparks, puddles of unidentifiable dead things, and urine.
As for Dave, he became a special friend to me. Chanukah was the only time of year that my mother allowed me to clutter up the living room run with my Lionel electric trains. My uncle, the handiest man in the family—that is, the only handy man in the family; my father’s customary reply when my mother asked him to perform any chores or repairs around the house was, “Call Maintenance!”—had screwed my train-tracks to a large wooden board, which made it easier to set them up and break them down every year. I would painstakingly build and place all of my Plasticville buildings: the train station, junction building, signal bridge and telegraph poles, finally placing the plastic people (they were all a pale shade of peach; Plasticville was, like most of our building, sadly, not integrated), attach the tracks to the transformer with wires, and the locomotive and diesel engines would go around and around and around and around….
One day, Dave, on his way to the windows near the piano, remarked, “I see that you like trains. I take pictures of trains, with my camera.”
I was amazed: an adult was speaking to me about my hobby! When I smiled back, Dave took me to the kitchen table and showed me a scrapbook that he somehow managed to carry everywhere, along with his cleaning equipment. It was a vast display of real-life locomotives, coal cars, and all different kinds of rolling stock. The camera was no big deal; it was a simple Brownie, of the type then popular. All the same, Dave was very proud to share his knowledge with me.
After we spoke for a bit, it became clear to me that Dave was unlike any other adult I had ever met. He was like a big kid himself: he didn’t judge; he liked what he liked, and spoke frankly about his dislikes. Still, I had a friend, and that was important. In the weeks that followed, I always looked forward to Dave’s visits.
Having won his confidence, Dave might share his secrets: “There’s someone at the minyan, the morning prayer service, who doesn’t like me,” he said once. “I have to protect myself.”
A child myself, with but a vague idea of the dangers in the world, I had no idea what my friend could do. “What will you do, Dave?” I asked.
He smiled—Dave had a way of smiling that started at his mouth, and ended up with his entire face. He was not a handsome man; he always needed a shave, and growing up with a single mother who had not loved him very much had left its mark. But he did have a lovely smile.
“I’ll just give more tsedakah, charity,” he said. “I’ll put some more coins in the pushka, the charity box. God will take care of it for me.”
That was an important lesson for me, the idea that God would take care of us. I didn’t completely follow the idea that God needed charity in order to take special care of someone—I still don’t—but we do have a Jewish saying: Tsedakah tatseel me-mahvet—Charity saves from death. Does it really? I can’t be sure, but I do give tsedakah, and some of it is in memory of my old friend, Dave the Window Cleaner.
I haven’t been back to the Old Neighborhood recently, but I know that Dave passed away many years ago. I grew up, started going to school uptown, and lost touch with my old friend. I know that he got married, to Marian, a sweet, chubby woman who would “sort of” clean the houses while Dave washed their windows. It was a shidduch, a set-up marriage, which the ladies of the neighborhood brought about, so that two lonely, simple people would have each other. I’m glad that he found happiness; there is a Jewish tradition that everyone is part of a zug, a Blessed Pair, and that we cannot consider ourselves complete until we find the Yin to our Yang. I’m glad that Dave and Marian found one another; I can still remember the two of them walking together on Grand Street, holding hands. People should hold hands more often; the world can be a big and lonely place, and we need one another.
Dave and Marian are gone now. I do believe in heaven, though. And I would like to think that somewhere, up in the Place where they have Pearly Gates and Golden Doors and Diamond Windows, Dave has plenty to do. Every day, he takes his bucket and brushes, smiles at his loving and lovely Marian, and goes out to wash the Windows of Heaven. Yes, that would be nice. Keep an eye on us, Dave. And tell God to do it, too.