When my cousin Michael called, I was fretting over numbers. It took me a while to make the passage from work to phone, and at first his words seemed even more disconnected than usual. I understood an invitation to go to a mikvah with him on Friday. The synagogue on 19th and Valencia had been sold to a real estate developer. There were no longer enough Jews living in the Mission District to support it. As part of the sales agreement, the developer allowed the mikvah to remain open while the synagogue was under reconstruction into luxury apartments.
Michael said he was bathing at the mikvah every Friday afternoon with his aging-hippy lawyer friend, Gabriel. Afterwards, they would steal wood and bricks from the construction site. They were liberating the material, returning it to the people, Michael said.
Michael called the mikvah a hot tub. At first he used the words in apposition, “the mikvah, the hot tub,” then dropped mikvah and referred to the ritual bath waters exclusively as a hot tub. In exchange for a few tokes of hashish, the mikvah attendant let Michael and Gabriel into the hot tub free of charge.
I lived in the Mission when I first transferred to the San Francisco office, and passed the synagogue on 19th and Valencia frequently. Once I knocked on the locked door and there was no answer. I tried a large Reform temple and a small Orthodox schul, but liked neither. I settled into the same kind of life I had lived in Chicago, at least as it concerned religion. I lit Hanukkah candles and always found a Seder the first night of Passover. Every few months I read a book with a Jewish theme, and generally avoided eating pork. I made sure my girlfriend hung no crosses in our apartment.
As a cultural enthusiast, I was intrigued by the interior of the synagogue at 19th and Valencia. What could still be inside? Old books and tallitim, dedicatory plaques, rolled parchment, an internal lamp, probably extinguished? Someone would have probably removed these relics by now and buried the books. All I would see would be unconcealed joists, warped floorboards, chunks of plaster. But then there was the mikvah itself. I had never seen one before. It would also be fun to smoke a little dope with my crazy cousin. I rang my assistant and asked her not to make any appointments for Friday afternoon.
The double doors of the blue-and-white tiled façade are locked. My hand wipes a patch of yellow sawdust from the doorknob. I run a finger across a dull blue tile and it picks up specks of saw and grime, leaving a streak of bright turquoise. At one side of the tiled façade I see a narrow door made of a pale shabby wood. To this door of a cheap motel room is taped a weathered note: Knock for the mikvah.
I knock hard and hear footsteps approach from within, then the brutal snap of a deadbolt opening. A crack between the door and frame is made, and the head of a young man peers through. He is short and thin, with a long sad face. Black down mottles his pallid feminine skin under his nose and on his cheeks. He wears a knitted yarmulke. The man’s eyes question my knock.
“I’m meeting Michael,” I say. The man’s eyes open querulously. Michael calls from inside somewhere. “It’s cool, man. It’s cuz Jules!” The wariness in the man’s eyes dissolves into indifference. He opens the door fully for me. When I am inside, he locks it again and trudges down the hallway, head ducked, even though the ceiling is high.
A miasma of stale water smites me hard when I enter the dark hallway. My mouth goes dry, and a chill of nausea ripples through me. Dizzy and choking, I stumble across a floor of mildewed concrete and wood planks, grabbing at a clod of wallpaper still hanging to the wall. It crumbles in my hand and I fall against the wall. A damp funk exudes from the plaster in waves. I stagger on. The man has not noticed my sickness. He plods, head down, across the long, narrow, tenebrous breach from the light outside the door to the light at the end of the hall.
I reach the light, too, finally, and I am at a room. Michael sits Buddha-like on the carpet, grinning and sucking at a small hash pipe. The young man is sitting on a wooden folding chair next to a bulky misshapen object of Formica, which I suppose once served as a cloakroom counter. The room is gloomy, and it stinks of chlorine, but there is space here, and I can breathe again. I glance around the shadowy room for a place to sit. The carpet looks gritty. There is another folding chair next to the man. I pull it across to the opposite wall and sit down. It’s warm in here, but there isn’t anywhere to hang my blazer, so I leave it on. I uncinch my tie.
“What’s happening, cuz?” Michael shakes his grease-sheened coarse black hair rhythmically across his eyes as he speaks. “I’m tripping on this place, like broken things have vibrational insides representing physically what one never achieves, foreseeing what’s happening, I’m gonna North Beach, he’s gonna liberate me, show me how to score ten thousand dollars making buttons myself on this machine, and what am I doing with all this money is making me sweat cold stones.”
“You don’t have the money yet, Michael,” I remind him.
“It’s in the bag with the button machine and I’m sweating cold stones to the head, to spend it, after going through the true love trip with her, like I get other women, I have the freedom to do it and I do it, but I don’t dig it in a self-actualized lifestyle beyond institutions, at the party I see this other one and right away we start, and Cat checks it out, now she’s pissed, says she loves me but doesn’t want to do it anymore, I don’t satisfy her, what kind of mumblypeg is that, man, just screw it, I gotta clean it all off in the hot tub, this is Noah of the hot tub.”
Michael is a grubby character in his green-and-purple tie-dyed tee-shirt and his grimy blue jeans, secured at his hips by a piece of string. He might pass for Chinese with his sallow complexion and high cheek bones, but the thick claw-like nose reveal his Semitic origins.
I look around the room. There is nothing here, save the chairs on which Noah and I sit, the Formica relic and the tattered gray carpet. Where the wallpaper is intact, the pink roses on an olive field seem to dance like miniature angels, and through the one window, built at ground level, I see light pierce and illuminate a phalanx of particles dancing up and down against a wall, an unreadable text like Daniel’s moving writ.
I hear splashing in back of me, from the mikvah I suppose. “Someone’s in the hot tub,” Michael sniggers. “We gotta wait for Gabriel, anyway.” He stuffs his pipe with green hash. His hammy hands are scarred, his nails long and black from his occasional odd jobs laying carpet. “Hey, what’s happening, cuz?”
“A strange thing happened on the way to the office a few days ago,” I say. “I picked up a girl hitchhiking. As soon as she’s inside the car, she says, I like you. Do you want to come to my place? I’m going to work, I say. And her leg keeps shaking, like she has to go to the bathroom. I tried to make conversation, but she just stares ahead as if she’s a zombie. She just keeps saying, I like you. When I stop to let her out, she runs away without saying goodbye.”
“Did you do her yet?”
“No.” I draw smoke into my lungs and pass the pipe to Noah.
“Scared of the fresh?” Michael asks in a wicked, insinuating way.
“You know it’s not that, Michael.” I don’t want to sound defensive, but it comes out that way. Noah looks at me silently and takes a draw from the pipe. “I think the girl was mildly retarded. It didn’t seem fair to take advantage.”
“They like it too! Was she good looking? Tell me where she lives and I’ll go over right now, Michael you stud!” Michael leaps to his feet and begins to strut about the room, hands on hips, head craned forward rooster-like. His oily hair forms a moving, flashing corona of black. He stops and eyes the wallpaper as if preening before a mirror. He flexes his yellow-brown arm muscles, and then twirls his body like a model on a runway. “Freedom is calling you with words of revolution, lots of pussy in my new space, but cuz Jules always has one classy woman!”
Michael offers me the double-slap handshake. I slap his outstretched palms, suddenly stoned and excited. Michael barks at Noah and points at me, “This man has it all, stereo, car, furniture, a Masters, I make a move and I think I have him and bam, bam, bam, he’s got me, checkmate, it’s over, education, books and foreign languages, like parlay-ihnen espanol, couchay-coo, it’s happening!” Michael dances to the wall and poses.
“Do you go to college,” I ask Noah politely, knowing the answer. His listless, almost ghoulish expression tells his story: Left home during high school to hitch around the country. Stays high most of the time. Lives in one of the converted warehouses south of Market, or in a cheap residence hotel. Possibly gay, but more likely sexually inert. Chastises his innate intelligence with manual jobs requiring little thought or activity, like guarding a mikvah. He is a deadbeat who takes what comes, tranquilized into inanition by drugs and a hard life. Michael has many friends like this. I know he’s not in college, but I feel compelled to make conversation.
“No.” Noah’s first word. He takes another draw form the pipe. His face seems to collapse around the short stem.
“Is this all you do?”
“I also house sit. The mikvah is only open Fridays and for conversions.” Noah speaks from the throat, trying not let the smoke escape.”
“You sound like you’re from back east.”
“How long have you been out here?”
It’s difficult to speak with this inanimate Noah. We plunge into silence. The hash is bringing me up then down then up again. Michael and Noah discuss the politics of the synagogue closing. Although an outsider, Michael does most of the talking. The real estate developer will no longer allow anyone in the sanctuary because of the theft of supplies. Gabriel and someone named Dov have spoken to another lawyer about getting a court order to keep the mikvah opened indefinitely. Another name refuses to recognize the authority of the secular court. More names emerge. The pipe keeps moving around the room.
I am no longer listening. I hear splashing and giggling from the mikvah. It comes as music, and my stoned head explores the lapping cadences of the water. They make a jazz riff. I begin to snap my fingers.
Out of the water music emerges a reference to Noah getting home in time to have dinner with his mom and brother. I gaze at Noah and suddenly glean boyishness. It is as if I’m doused with cold water. “How old are you, Noah?”
What have I done? I have dealt with this boy carelessly, imagining him to be a drifter knocked into submission by the world. But now I see it: His reluctance to speak comes not from deadbeat indolence, but from the teenage timidness. His skin has not the irresolution of early dissipation, but the softness of youth. How quick I am to see what is not there, and not see what is.
The hashish pipe is in my hand, evidence of my distortions. I pass it hastily to Michael. This means a change in direction, but I can’t place drugs directly in the hands of a sixteen-year-old boy.
“I shouldn’t be smoking in front of you. I didn’t realize how young you are.”
“What’s wrong?, Noah answers. “Jews have been smoking hashish for centuries.”
“I have a middle-class morality. What would your mother say?”
“She smokes with me. She says it’s okay.”
“It’s bad for your lungs.”
“And yours? Anyway, how long do we have? Aren’t we all going to die in thermonuclear warfare?” Noah says this not with resentment, but in matter-of-fact acceptance.
“If your mother approves, I suppose it’s alright to smoke with you.” I think to myself that I should not be party to the corruption of this boy and I refuse the pipe next time it is passed to me.
“Hey cuz Jules, it’s the younger generation, it’s what’s happening, I did meth at 13, but what a trip, like humpin’, you do it but you don’t really do it until you get older, like salve for the blistered psyche wandering for the experience that makes the true artist.”
“I thought we were the younger generation. Noah, your mother must be in her 40s.”
“My age,” I say. “We might have gone to the same high school in Queens. Suddenly I feel old. I usually still think of myself as a boy.”
“Me, too,” Noah says and laughs for the first time.
More splashing and giggling from the mikvah, unstructured child’s play, aquatic paddy cake.
“I have five women now, but it’s just humpin’, Cat may be coming back, what a trip to have my true love back, she can sell buttons for me in North Beach and get some bucks together, a couple hundred, you know the one who babysits her grandkids is hot and she’s good to me, but her karma is getting tired and that’s Wednesday and Thursday I hustle at the Mahubay, the hot tub Fridays, when do I have time for painting?, art suffers at the hands of the unknowing, but I will continue to be an example of an outstanding personage of the times, no misconception this time restructuring the personality, or so it is said, building to the goal, and the destiny is the first goal, I need to get the addresses of people ready to buy chains. Did you bring your pieces?”
“In the car. Do you play chess, Noah?”
“I like to play, but I’m not very good.”
“No one is very good at chess. You can be a good player and still not know the game. Grandmasters play at a level I can’t begin to comprehend. They make a move which prevents their opponent from doing something twenty moves later. If I try to think more than three or four moves ahead, my mind goes dry.”
“Four moves is pretty good. I just push around the pieces.”
“I bet you’re better than you think.” I want to befriend this boy, compensate for having smoked hash with him. “You know, chess is a lot like life. You make small immediate goals for yourself that will lead to the big goal. Like occupying the center of the board to capture the King later on. You’re limited by your material and time, just like life. And no matter how strong a move is, it must by definition weaken you someplace else on the board. That’s the first law of thermodynamics. And just like life, you have to be in the right place at the right time.”
“And it helps to be white,” Michael chimes in.
“Chess is consistent,” Noah says. “The laws never change, like the laws of the universe which are the laws of Torah.”
“And sometimes you win not out of brilliance, but by not being the first one to make a mistake.”
“And luck is a matter of position, not fate.”
The mood is suddenly joyous, and I feel close to this Noah. “Thought must be devoted to action,” I say. “You absolutely can not avoid making a move.”
“That’s a very Jewish statement,” Noah says. “For a Jew, action is everything. All the names for god in the Torah are derived from verbs, actions that people can do. The one exception is the unspeakable word. Since we can’t do the action, we are not allowed to say the word.”
This remark troubles me. People will always believe that acts in the world give glimpses of the eternal. But there will always be the unspeakable name, the level of the two hundredth move, which no one can attain, which is so far beyond everything else that no one can even recognize its shadow. I do not believe it really exists. Yet I can’t break lose of the possibility of its existence.
“My rabbi says that Judaism is based on the physical,” Noah continues. “The Torah does not negate knowledge obtained through the senses, as other some religions do. But we do admit that there are other kinds of knowledge beyond the senses. There is the ordering of what we sense into categories. That’s reason. And beyond reason is a kind of knowledge so powerful that it is fatal to the person who discovers it. The Kabalah calls it hashmal.”
“I’ve never felt anything close to hashmal,” I say.
“I bet it’s like being at the center of an atomic blast,” Noah says.
Michael leaps between us, one hand perched on his hip, the other waving the pipe like an aspergillum. “Hey dudes, getting into a heavy rapside-down rap, bombs and the unknown and the beauty of life is its poetry, far out, I don’t know about you guys, but hash makes me horny, stoned again!”
Michael squeezes his crotch and sneers. He irritates me. How can he smoke so much, run around so much, sleep so little and remain in robust health?
The splashing in the mikvah has stopped. The sun has sunk to window level and its light dissects the room into brilliant glares and long shadows. Noah and Michael stare at the carpet as if counting threads.
A small boy, maybe three or four, toddles into the room and wambles around it randomly, ignoring us. He has curly red hair that braids down his plump, well-scrubbed face. He arrives almost by chance at the Formica counter and bangs his fists against it.
“Hey, man, what’s your name?” Michael asks. The boy smiles into space and whacks at the counter. Tzitzis flap from his shirt tail. “Man, what’s your name?” Michael approaches the boy. They form a dialectic: one so clean, the other so grubby. “My name is Michael. His name is Jules. His name is Noah. What’s your name?”
The boy pulls at his ear curls, then slurs a gibberish sounding like a pig Latin version of Yiddish.
“What?” Michael asks, and the boy gives the same incomprehensible reply.
“Okay, man, how old are you? Are you three?”
The boy bleats a short sound and starts hitting the counter again.
“Five?” Another bleat. “Twelve? Another bleat. “Man!”
The father enters from the mikvah, a corpulent man in a black double-breasted suit with padded shoulders and narrow lapels. His white shirt is buttoned at the top and tieless. The man’s round, damp face seems too small for his cumbrous frame. The face is covered thickly with Titian curls, still glistening pebbles of water. Cresting this orb of coils is a black yarmulke. The man smiles, and like a gaping hole of fire, his mouth seems to flame out from the redness of his beard.
These Orthodox always communicate either a great happiness or a great irritation at all things, and in this case, it’s happiness. I distrust the joy. It comes too easily, and belongs in the same category as the vacuous smile of a Moonie or a Nicheren Soshu Buddhist. But the hashish controls the moment, forcing me to observe without interpreting, and I see that of all the great pleasures in his world, bathing in the mikvah with his son holds a special place for this man.
He takes a rumpled dollar from his pocket and gives it to Noah. Noah puts the dollar into a cigar box that I hadn’t noticed before and pencils a mark on the box top.
“Hey, man, how old’s your kid,” Michael asks.
The man answers in a booming voice, as if he were trying to speak over a train or a waterfall. “He’s four. Come son, stop your hitting.” He shouts to the boy, but it is a not a yell. To a patient, fatherly inflection he has added fullness of voice.
The boy stops his banging and toddle-trots to the father. The father extracts another mashed dollar from his pants and gives it to Noah.
“The lawyer came by earlier,” Noah tells him. “He wants you to call him.”
“It’s almost the Shabbos,” the man trumpets. “There will be time for talking.” He begins to rock from side to side as if praying.
“The lawyer is talking about a class action suit.”
“Don’t worry about it. Only good will be done. The mikvah is open today for the Shabbos.” The man lifts his boy and holds him to his chest with one hand. The other hand plunges into his pocket once more, withdraws another crinkled dollar and gives it to Noah. He continues to sway from side to side.
“You got a beautiful kid, dude,” Michael says. “The future, the book of life, we are working towards it, man, that beautiful thing.”
The father shrugs at Michael, then shouts “Gut Shabbos” and starts down the hall, son in arm. Halfway into darkness, he returns and hands Noah another dollar. “Don’t worry,” he booms out. “We will talk next week. Gut Shabbos.”
The man and boy navigate down the long, gloomy hall to the outside. I see him by the door to the outside, rocking from side to side in shadows. Suddenly Noah stands up, runs down the hall and unlocks the door.
“Go into the hot tub, Jules,” Michael says with a lecherous titter. “The water isn’t as hot as other hot tubs, but man, you’ll be alone, unlax, take it easy, man, it’s beautiful.”
“I’m too stoned.”
“It’s a trip when you’re stoned.”
“I don’t think I want to.” There is something vile about Michael dipping into the mikvah, something even viler about me doing it. I can’t say why I believe this, but the truth of it immobilizes me.
“Go into the hot tub and have a blast.” Michael lets out an obscene cackle. I hate his smirk. Michael can slip out of his jeans and slide into the mikvah with ease. Once when we were in our early twenties, we met two thirteen-year-old girls in the water at the beach. Michael swam about fifteen yards out with one of the girls, and they tread water side by side, their bodies pressing close, her bikini bottom floating in her hand atop the spume. I sat with the other girl at the edge of the water. She scraped her nails in concentric circles into the mud, like tractor blades. Water rushed into the troughs she made and broke their walls and she dug them out again. Foam rolled over her thighs. My ankle twisted in the water swirl and touched her leg. She pressed her leg to mine an instant, then pulled it away, then pressed it again and kept it there, smiling. I wanted to touch her again, to pull her into the deep, to do it all without saying a word. I moved my foot away. Later she went off with Michael and her friend.
“Always afraid, cuz Jules, with your money and your books and your car and I have to get home early ‘cause the old lady’s expecting me, what’s the difference, just do it!”
“Go on,” Noah says. “It’s a mitzvah.”
“Give me a minute.”
“It’s nice in there!” Michael lets out a sordid squeal that makes my throat burn. “No one’s watching you!”
Michael is on his feet and prancing around again, his arms waving me up. “Into the hot tub, into the hot tub, into the hot tub, into the hot tub …”
“It’s okay,” the boy says.
I don’t want to go, but I have no choice. The two wave me on, stoned Cherubim opening a gate. I enter the mikvah.
But it is not a mikvah. It is another hallway, carpeted in a frayed pattern of pink flowers in gray pasture. The floor and ceiling sink deeply in spots, and the walls blister mottled turquoise and olive. As ancient as it is, the hallway is immaculately clean.
Two rooms open off the hall, and at the far end stands a huge white door. The room nearest me is door-less. I approach it carefully, halting at each yawn of the floor. It is a small cubicle neatly arrayed with cleaning implements, mop, broom, carpet-sweeper, pail, dust pan, carpet cleaner, floor wax, cans of Ajax, boxes of chlorine compound.
I advance further into the hallway. A disinfectant smell seeps from the other room. I open the door and am struck first by a mirrored vanity table, chipped and worn, but free of dust. Sitting on a yellowed doily are some half dozen brushes and combs. Above the vanity runs a shelf along a green wall. The shelf is lined with half-filled bottles of shampoo, liquid soap, hair conditioner, face creams, hand creams, body creams. A hand-written note taped to the vanity mirror requests that one wash all parts of the body thoroughly in the shower before entering the mikvah. The paper and tape are yellow and bubble from the glass.
My eyes move past the shower stall and wash basin to the wall across from the soaps. Taped to it are peeling parchments which give the mikvah prayers and directions for its use in Hebrew, English and English transliteration of the Hebrew. The English is a series of passive imperatives: All rings and other jewelry must be removed. All thorns must be pulled from the skin. No open wounds are permitted. Scabs must be softened by water before immersion. The entire body including all hair must be completely submerged in water with both feet off the bottom of the mikvah for at least three seconds during immersion.
So many rules.
I return to the hallway and walk to a large white door. Its lever handle reminds me of the large doors to indoor pools at Jewish Community Centers and Y’s. I hear water lapping on the other side.
I should not enter. I’m not really a Jew.
I should not enter. I’m a Jew, but it’s not proper since I won’t be celebrating the Shabbos this evening.
I should not enter. Although everything seems to be scrubbed down, I’m always leery that a disinfectant smell conceals hidden filth.
I should not enter. I do not seek sensual pleasure from a place of religious ritual, as Michael does.
I should not enter.
I push down the lever and pull open the large white door to see that the mikvah indeed is an indoor swimming pool in the form of a stout cantilever in white tile. The tile has been scrubbed so many times that it absorbs the bright light from a row of high windows and reflects a dull and scratchy glaze. Specks of mould grow between some of the tiles.
Steps along a rail lead down to the rectangle projection closest to the door. The railing separates the water from the walkway along three walls following the odd cantilever shape of the pool. The unrailed side abuts the door and here the water washes up onto the tiles. Here I stand, shoes in a thin puddle of water.
I gaze into the water. Patches of light play on the surface, from which rises faint condensation. It is shallow along the edge and even at its deepest, near the drain in the middle, it looks to be no more than a few feet to the bottom. It would take an act of will to drown at such a depth.
I step closer. I am at the edge now. Of the water. My socks feel wet. Wisps of contrail disperse into air at the surface.
An impulse to leap, fully clothed.
Can we believe that which we know is not true?
It is nearly sunset and I have only to take another step, not even a leap.
Can we believe what we want to believe and not even question if it’s true or not?
Not even a step, just a lean forward would do it, a momentary loss of balance followed by an instantaneous slide into the warm and yielding stillness.
This cry for order, is it Hashmal or fear of Hashmal?
Not even a lean forward, just the idea of a lean could do it.
I rush from the mikvah and down the hallway and into the waiting room where Michael and Noah are passing the pipe again and through the hallway to the outside, suffocating from the stench of putrid cement, and I fling open the door, which is now unlocked. A supernal bright late afternoon light dazes my eyes. A pale violet shadow of the synagogue on 19th and Valencia shimmers on the sidewalk.
Marc Jampole wrote Music from Words, published by Bellday Books (2007). His poetry has appeared in Evansville Review, Mississippi Review, Cortland Review, Vallum, Slant, Cutthroat, Ellipsis and many other journals. Over the years, four of his poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. More than 1,500 freelance articles he has written on various topics have been published in magazines and newspapers. Marc also writes the popular OpEdge blog, which appears on the websites of two national publications. He is on the editorial board of Jewish Currents.