The summer of 1976, after my freshman year at Swarthmore College, I got a job as a laborer for a construction company.
I am naturally gifted in construction and the use of tools, and so I soon went from pushing a wheelbarrow to doing carpentry. The foreman, his name was Gino, took an immediate and palpable dislike to me. I assumed it was because I was in college and clearly had the talent, if I wished to, to be his boss one day.
In the mid 1970s no one thought about skin cancer and so, when I worked outside, I often worked shirtless. I’m Greek and Armenian and therefore I’m brown and get dark in the sun. One day, out of the blue, Gino said to me: “You get dark just like a nigger.”
Every day at lunchtime the entire crew would gather and eat together. Gino had diabetes and did not eat sweets, but every day in his lunch pail he had a pastry that his wife had packed for him. And everyday Gino offered that pastry to everybody in the crew except me and then, if none of the other men accepted the pastry, Gino tossed it in the trash.
One day I mentioned all this to my father. My father didn’t miss a beat. “He’s a small man, Phil. You will meet many in your life.” He went on to tell me that in Greek there is a word “andropaki” which means “small man.”
As my father pulled away from the construction site, he continued: “Andro, from andros, means ‘man’. ‘Paki’ is a diminutive suffix.”
In 1988 I moved-in with my girlfriend, a brilliant young attorney a few years my junior. We had met a few months before, on a beautiful fall day, in Union Square Park in Manhattan.
I do not remember why I was in the park that day, or where I was going, but in the park I noticed a pretty woman lying on a blanket. She was studying a test-prep book and had a dog lying at her side.
“What’s this?” I asked her “A Norman Rockwell painting?”
She laughed and we began conversing. As we talked she began playing with her dog. After a few minutes she threw a stick that the dog caught in its mouth.
“Just like Raphael,” she said.
“The painter?” I asked, genuinely confused.
“No, the shortstop. The shortstop for the Mets.”
“Oh” I said. “I don’t pay any attention to sports. I was confused because I couldn’t understand why a painter would catch a stick in his mouth.”
A few months later I moved into her apartment one block west of Union Square Park.
We were, to look at us, entirely mismatched. Rachel had been raised on Long Island, NY by very observant Jews; and I had been raised on both coasts and overseas by atheists. Rachel had majored in political science to prepare for law school. I had majored in comparative religions because that was my interest. Rachel kept kosher and had lived a sheltered life. I had rejected shelter and had traveled tens of thousands of miles by thumb in the US, Europe and the mideast.
When I met Rachel she was in the final stages of a divorce from what had essentially been a forced marriage. When Rachel was an undergraduate her mother discovered Rachel’s birth control and a document from an abortion clinic. Her mother and father accused her of breaking both the commandment not to kill and the laws against premarital sex, and forced her to marry her then boyfriend. Her husband squandered their “marriage gelt” on a wardrobe and, after only a few years of marriage, left Rachel for a man.
But, like some who are raised in an oppressive environment, Rachel was anxious to ‘bust-out” and saw her divorce as her opportunity. Years later she admitted to me that when she first looked up at me from her blanket she thought to herself: “there’s my hot shegitz.”
Rachel’s sheltering belied her very big spirit. When her husband had squandered their bank account–the better part of $100,000–she took herself to illegal horse-betting parlors in Harlem and made back the money.
Our entirely different backgrounds notwithstanding, Rachel and I, for lack of a better term, recognized each other. We saw the other’s nature, not the other’s so-to-say acquired skin.
Being with me was not easy for Rachel. Not because I was particularly difficult, but because so many of our informing symbols were in conflict.
One Friday after work I said: “Rachel, I’m Greek and Armenian, I want lamb chops.” And so we walked to the now-defunct Jefferson Market, an upscale butcher in Greenwich Village. I purchased the lamb chops I wanted and we headed back to Rachel’s apartment.
Suddenly, as we walked north on Sixth Avenue, Rachel made a pronouncement. “I’ll just make a few pans, a plate and a few utensils treif so that you can have your non-kosher food.”
I froze on the sidewalk and, without any prior thought, said: “You and I can’t eat on separate plates. Either we eat on the same plates with the same utensils, or I can’t live with you, much less sleep with you.” Rachel thought about this for maybe 30 seconds and then said: “OK, I don’t need to keep the kitchen kosher.”
At the time I did not fully appreciate the depth of Rachel’s concession but, in time, I’ve come to be in awe of her truly brave about-face on the sidewalk. Few people are made of stuff strong enough to face-down, in an unexpected climactic moment, a lifetime of indoctrination that conflates identity itself with diet or some other imposed orthodoxy or outward form.
Rachel and I lived together for 6 years. I took her to all of our family’s gatherings and my parents loved her. She came to my family’s funerals. She helped trim my parent’s Christmas tree, an act she confessed she had longed to do for decades. When she asked her parents for leave to invite me to her family’s Passover her parents flatly refused. Rachel, between sobs, told me that she had never felt so betrayed.
Not long after I had been disinvited to Rachel’s parent’s Passover I purchased a used pick-up truck. Rachel used it one weekend to drive to her parent’s home on Long Island. A few weeks later Rachel invited her father to her apartment so that he could meet me informally over cake and coffee. I hoped that we’d find some way to connect as two men who both loved Rachel.
After lunch the three of us went out to see Rachel’s father off. Once on the street he pointed to my pick-up truck parked on the block and said: “Your pick-up truck has saddle tanks. Very dangerous. They could blow-up.” I replied that perhaps in a T-bone collision the tanks might rupture, but that I had never heard of pick-up truck tanks exploding. I went on to say that the Ford Pinto had had that problem in rear end collisions, a fact covered-up by Ford, but that I didn’t think that concern applied to my truck.
Rachel’s father was adamant: “No,” he said “saddle tanks can explode. They are very dangerous. I think you should get rid of that truck.”
I didn’t pay any attention at that moment, but Rachel’s father was setting me up.
A week or two later Rachel again used my truck to drive to her parent’s home in the Five Towns. In the mid-afternoon Rachel called me. “Your truck won’t start,” she said. I replied that I’d jump on a train and go see what the problem was. I asked Rachel for the address and got off the phone.
I took the Long Island Railroad train to Woodmere, grabbed a cab, and found myself in front of Rachel’s parent’s very large home in a very tony neighborhood. My pick-up was parked directly across the street from the house, but I went straight to the front door and knocked.
Rachel answered and let me in. Her parents were awkward and cold, at once outwardly polite and quite obviously uncomfortable with my presence.
Rachel’s father again admonished me that I should get rid of the truck because saddle tanks can blow-up. I made some small talk, asked Rachel for the keys, and then excused myself to take a look at the truck.
I tried to start the truck, but it didn’t start, although it cranked just fine. I got out and opened the hood and immediately smelled gas. When I looked more closely I saw that the gas line had been cut with a knife so that gas would spray on the exhaust manifold. My heart skipped a beat because gas spraying onto a hot exhaust manifold can indeed make a truck, or any gas-powered vehicle, explode.
I immediately understood what had happened: Rachel’s father had warned me–in front of his daughter–that my truck could explode. He had cut the gas line so that if I had started the truck and driven away the truck would have exploded a few miles down the road when the exhaust manifold got hot. The sabotage would have been invisible because the fire would destroy the evidence of the cut rubber gas line.
But, obviously, Rachel’s father would not have had Rachel drive a car rigged to explode, so I looked more deeply. I soon saw that the dust on the cable from the coil to the distributor had been rubbed off: someone had obviously handled that cable. I then fully realized what had happened.
Rachel’s father had pulled the distributor cable from the coil, rendering the truck impossible to start. Rachel couldn’t start the car and called me. Then Rachel’s father reattached the cable from the coil to the distributor and cut the gas line. Luckily for me he cut so deeply that not enough gas got to the cylinders to start the car.
Rachel’s father had obviously planned for the truck to start when I turned the key; had planned to refuse to let Rachel ride in the dangerous truck; and had planned to watch me drive-off in a truck that would explode 10 minutes later. Rachel’s father had concieved, and fully implemented, a plan to murder the shagitz his daughter loved. Me.
I walked to the back door and knocked. Rachel’s father let me in.
“You live in a hell of a neighborhood, Mr. Levin. Someone vandalized my truck so that it could explode. Do you have any tools?”
Rachel’s father’s body made a kind of odd jerking motion. His feet did not move but his torso jerked back two or three inches as if he had been punched in the chest, and then his body immediately jerked back, it looked almost as if an electric shock had run through him and caused him to spasm.
“I need a screwdriver, a razor knife or regular knife, and maybe a pair of pliers.”
Levin went to his basement and returned with a few near useless tools.
I went to the truck and, because the gas line was cut so near to one end, I was able to shorten the line and still reattach it.
When I returned to his house Levin launched into a word salad discourse as if to present a different explanation, but I cut him off. “No. The truck was vandalized. If whoever cut the gas line had cut less deeply the truck would have started but also sprayed gas all over the exhaust manifold. When the manifold got hot, the truck would have exploded,”
I looked Levin in the eye. He was, as the saying goes, “white as a sheet.” He knew that I knew.
I drove back to the city alone. Rachel took the train.
Not long after I survived Rachel’s father’s murder attempt, I broke-up with Rachel.
Rachel went on to marry a college friend of mine who had, for a few years, been jealous of my relationship with Rachel. I stopped speaking to him when he invited Rachel to a date the day after I told him that Rachel and I had broken-up.
Over the thirty years since we split Rachel has called me from time to time. About twenty years after her father tried to kill me I told Rachel what really happened with the truck.
Rachel’s voice turned to a whisper: “My father tried to murder you. I wish I did not believe it.”
I kept the story of my close encounter with death, at the hands of my girlfriend’s father, to myself for many years. Eventually, around the time that I told Rachel, I also told some close friends.
Most asked me why I did not go to the police. Why I had kept it all to myself. Why I had, by my silence, in effect protected Levin after he had tried to kill me.
And I always explained my silence the same way. Levin was so terrified that his daughter was about to marry a non-Jew that he went mad. He wasn’t a menace to society, he was only a menace to a non-Jew who might marry his daughter. Levin was, I explained to my friends, an andropaki. There are many of them.
With the exception of Gino, I have changed the names of the people described in this memoir.