[Note: Well, I got tagged by Slut with a meme: “Share six non-important things/habits/quirks about yourself.” But I hate memes. Still ... Back in December, I shared An Atheist’s Christmas Memory, in which I talked about my grandmother. Some of my readers urged me to post more about her, so here’s another Nanny story. If you're a stickler for following directions literally, you ought to be able to dig out at least six non-important things about me by reading this.]
Nanny's bizarre idea of a good time was taking me on a bus ride up and down the Bronx's Grand Concourse. We never had a specific destination; these trips were her urban equivalent of the Cruise to Nowhere. The route of the Number 2 passed through its own sea of interesting island stopovers: Poe Cottage, Alexander's department store, Krum's ice cream parlor, the Loew's Paradise, the Bronx County Courthouse, and, only a few blocks away, Yankee Stadium. But we never debarked. Once we boarded at the junction of Snake Hill and Sedgewick Avenue, we just headed back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, like prisoners of the transit system.
We'd make our plans on the telephone. Mom would have already told Nanny I'd go with her, so it was no use my pleading a previous appointment, or claiming that I was sick. As I talked on the phone, I'd make glowering faces at Mom, maybe even shake my fist, and mouth "I'm gonna kill you!" Mom never took offense; she usually had to rush out of the room to keep from laughing out loud.
"So I'll pick you up at 11 tomorrow morning, Pussyboy."
"You're not gonna call me 'Pussyboy' all day, are you?"
"Believe me, there are plenty of children around who wish they had a grandmother to call them 'Pussyboy.'"
“How do I know their names? What do I look like, a phone book? But believe me there are plenty. So what should I call you? 'Joe Shmoe?'"
"It's better than 'Pussyboy.'"
"Listen, don't tell me what to call you. I'll call you what I call you. If I remember — if — maybe I'll try not to call you 'Pussyboy.' But only if."
On the day of our ride, both of us would "dress up nice," Nanny out of choice. I would have been wrestled into a suit earlier in the afternoon by Mom. In those days, my garments were usually too large because Mom shopped at the "He'll Grow Into It" boutique. She must have had grandiose expectations for me, because the crotch of my pants never fit; it frequently hung down to my knees. I'd have to spend a few minutes hunting for myself whenever I went to the bathroom.
But to Nanny, I was always, "Nice. Very snazzy."
For our date, she always sported her usual overdose of bright red lipstick and a coat of face powder so thick it could hide her blemishes from a dust mite. Before picking me up, she would have shpritzed herself with enough perfume to keep a French whorehouse in business for a year. And of course, her body would be squeezed into her "two-way stretch," tight skirt, and high heels. Nanny was not a person who was comfortable being comfortable.
While waiting for the bus to appear, we'd make talk so small that it was minuscule: how handsome I'd be if only I didn't have my father's lips, how much better I'd look in my suit if only I could keep my shirt tucked into my pants, how tall I'd be if only I could stand up straight instead of slouching like a caveman — “is that so hard?"
Invariably, some wiseguy friend of mine would manage to pass just as Nanny was licking her finger to clean an imaginary smudge off my cheek. But she was not one to be discouraged by a deflective action.
"Whattaya pushing me away? You got shmutz."
"Just tell me where. I'll clean it myself."
"Since when can you see your own face? Stand still, Pussyboy. Oh, excuse me. Stand still, Joe Shmoe."
When the bus would finally arrive, she'd pay our fares and leave me standing next to the driver while she scouted. We got on at one of the first stops, so there were always plenty of available doubles; but Nanny had to walk up and down the aisles, checking out the cleanliness of the "chairs," calibrating the exact distance from both the front and the back of the bus, and, because she couldn't stand circulating air, making sure that the windows weren't stuck open even a chink. Finally, she would plop herself down in the aisle seat of a pair, and call to me in a loud voice. "Pussyboy! Joe Shmoe! Come on, already, somebody'll take this. Listen, you'll have to climb over me. I need the extra space for my corns. My feet are killing me."
Once I was seated, she'd ask me to hold her "bag" for a minute, while she got herself "arranged." I never understood what, exactly, arranging was, but as practiced by Nanny, it involved about five minutes of bouncing up and down and saying "Uy." The whole time, I’d be sitting there with an actual woman’s purse on my lap. A young boy is incapable of doing that without feeling as if the whole world thinks he’s a drag queen.
"What's in this thing anyway? It weighs a ton."
"Never mind. Just sit up straight."
But we both knew what was in her purse. It was always heavy with make-up and medicines: eyebrow pencils in three or four different shades of black, a tin of Bufferin, countless rolls of Tums, rouges and lipsticks and nail polishes in every garish variation of red imaginable, packets of Alka-Seltzer, dried-out mascara, a tape measure no one had ever used, a couple of completely abraded emery boards, loose corn plasters, a cracked mirror, half a dozen unmatched earrings, a few small atomizers of perfume. Nestled into the easily reachable side pockets were two packs of Winstons, both torn open. Near the bottom lurked a package of Charms candy and a box of pepsin-flavored Chiclets, each piece tasting suspiciously of My Sin. Somewhere in the mix was hidden a lurid paperback bestseller, wrapped in a blue plastic cover because it was "nobody's business what I read." All these items were buried under layers and layers of loose tissues, the leftovers from colds going back to the 1920s.
Usually, there was also a "surprise": a half-eaten giant Hershey's with almonds, ostensibly for me.
"I got you some nice chocolate. Y'want? It's a little melty cause I opened it on the way over, and nibbled a little bit. I just took a small taste. You don't mind, right? Don't wipe your hands on your pants. You need, I got Kleenex."
Whenever somebody would board the bus, Nanny would stage-whisper a critique of his or her looks: "Uy, get a load of the bald head on this one. I bet you can see yourself in it." Or: "If I had a shnozz like that I'd join the circus." Then we'd both laugh and share a square of chocolate.
"I don't know how she doesn't fly away with that hat. (Mmmmm, I got one with a lotta nuts.) This is some faygeleh with the swishy walk. Maybe he'll want I should lend him my lipstick. (How's your nuts? Did you get any?) Who does she think she's kidding with that dye job? (You done? I'm just gonna have one more piece to even it out.) What, we all need to see this shmendrick with his zipper open? (Where's my Tums?)"
I hardly ever contributed to these running commentaries. On the rare occasions when I did dare to say something, Nanny would stare at me in disbelief.
"Hey, Nanny, look at that fat guy!"
"He's pretty big, right?"
"I told you shhhh. He'll hear you. What are you, so perfect?"
As the man would pass us and glower in my direction, Nanny would point at me and explain, "My grandson. Eight. What's on his lung is on his tongue. They don't teach them any manners today. Sorry."
When an attractive woman got on, Nanny would incline her head in the direction of the newcomer and ask, "Who's prettier? Me or her?"
I knew that my sister, when confronted with this question, would always say, "Oh, you are, Nanny!" Then they'd exchange kisses, and that would be that. Maybe they'd even stop at Krum's for a sundae.
But I was older, and I'd been taught by Mom and Dad to always tell the truth.
"So? Who's prettier? Me or her?"
"Very nice. It's so hard to pay somebody a compliment?"
"You asked me a question."
"Yeah, and she buys you Hershey's?"
"You didn't ask me that. You asked who was prettier. You want me to lie?"
"Such a smart aleck. But you're not so smart when it comes to cleaning behind your ears, are you? Maybe that dame will go for you when she sees the potatoes growing back there. Who knows? Maybe she likes potato salad. Should I ask her?"
I'd pray that the woman would head well past us, toward the rear of the bus. But most of the time she'd slither into the seat right in front, or directly in back, or immediately across the aisle. If the vehicle was crowded, she'd always find an empty strap to hang onto right beside us, her ample breasts swaying over our heads whenever we hit a pothole or lurched to a stop. Every near-poke in the head would elicit a muttered comment: "Uy, it's a wonder she doesn't kill somebody with those things."
Nanny never followed through on her threat to confront the woman with a report on my cleanliness, but I always spent the next fifteen or twenty minutes staring fixedly out the window.
"Whattaya looking at with so much concentration? You never saw buildings before?"
"I ... um ... never noticed that one over there."
"A brown apartment. So what?"
"I think it's ... um ... interesting."
“What are you, an architect all of a sudden? Since when are you interested in buildings? You can’t even stack two blocks together without one of them falling over."
"I just like it, OK?"
"You want a Charm?"
"Gum? You want a Chiclet?"
"You always like Chiclets. Don't you like Chiclets? You like Chiclets. These are your favorite flavor. Blue. First you’re too good for Pussyboy, and now you’re also too good for Chiclets? Take one."
"I'm not hungry."
Then Nanny would lean over to the good-looking woman, wherever she was situated, and say, "Look at this little Joe Shmoe. Y'ever hear of a boy who didn't want Hershey's?" Before I knew what was happening, the stranger would be sharing our candy, and using Nanny's aroma-doused tissues to wipe her hands.
When the woman eventually did get off the bus, Nanny would turn to me and say, "She seemed like such a nice lady. Can you explain to me please why she needs to show off her bust like that? And just out of curiosity: Who has a better shape, me or her?"
I wish I could report that I'd learned my lesson. But if you know me at all, you're aware that I never did. Even with my years and years of accumulated wisdom, if my grandmother were alive today to ask me that question, my answer would still be: "her."
But I would take a Chiclet. Particularly if it was my favorite flavor, blue.