Thursday, June 6, 2013

An Excerpt From My Novel: “Sam's Problem”

Writings & Other Thoughts

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of a novel-in-progress, “Sam’s Problem.”

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by Perry J. Greenbaum

Sam P. Goldberg had a problem and he knew it; he hadn’t worked for four years; there was no gold in his life. It’s true that he had freelanced for the last 20 years, doing quite nicely until recently. Things dried up about five years ago when the Net made everyone and his grandmother a writer; a few writing assignments; some PR work, a few gigs here and there and then nothing. Nada. Zipppo. Here he was at age 57, with two young school-aged boys, and he had not produced any income at all. Zero on his income tax to report.

Sam was racked by shame; for a Jew not to make any money for the family was the greatest sin that he knew about; he might as well have been a thief, a gonif, robbing his family of the happiness they richly deserved. At least that is the way it was written in the secular Jewish covenant, whereby it was incumbent that he provide a wealthy life to his family, from which his children would learn and then pass on the heritage. “It is written…”

Thanks be to God that his wife worked as a physiotherapist, also on a freelance basis, but enough to subsist “hand-to-mouth.” Sam tried to get a job; he did all the right things, updated his resume, went to job fairs and job workshops, went to Internet sites like Craigslist and LinkedIn; networked; sent out hundreds of email applications and even signed up with the Jewish community’s job agency, Tikvah. He had a few interviews, and once was on the short-list for a position as a temporary newsletter editor, but he never got an offer. He didn’t feel like a failure, but neither did he feel successful, not by the terms laid out by the community. By the secular covenant.

His job counselor, a certified sex therapist, told him that he ought to get a job at a donut shop, advice that one of Tikvah’s many overweight, if not outright obese, supervisors, a woman named Sheryl Kidneyman (I am not kidding), had strenuously insisted on; “you gotta take care of your family,” she said, picking up another lox and cream cheese sandwich from the tray, delivered by a Jewish caterer for the weekly departmental meeting. “I know; I have my own responsibilities,” she said between bites. “I have babies of my own.”  It’s true that taking care of three cats might be considered a responsibility, but it couldn’t be the same as taking care of humans, could it? He had also heard that she had hired help, a young Filipino woman whom she paid $377.25 a week, to do the actual taking care of, the cats that is.

It was also true that Kidneyman, and her Filipino and three cats, were all living in her parents’ large and airy three-bedroom penthouse condo; well, actually, it now legally belonged to her: using her power of attorney, the only daughter of the Kidneymans, both Holocaust survivors, Sheryl, the dutiful daughter had placed both of her parents, each suffering with varying stages of Alzheimer’s disease, each in their early 90s, into a publicly funded nursing home but not before she had quickly transferred all of their assets, including their summer residence, bank accounts, stocks and municipal bonds into her name. All legally and professionally done with one of the Federation’s top-notch lawyers.

Sam decided to change counsellors, and he was referred to someone who was a part-time clown. He immediately asked  if he would take a job at Tim Horton’s if faced with similar circumstances; the clown replied, “in a heartbeat; I would do anything for my family, even work in my uncle’s underwear-making factory” Sam also knew that his counsellor was an unmarried 45-year-old bachelor who still lived with his parents, both still alive and in their late 70s, in a house in one of the city’s nicer neighborhoods. The parents were multi-millionaires who had made their money years ago in real-estate development.

Sam’s wife, Sarah, a kind and otherwise generous woman, had also gently asked him to consider a part-time job at the post office; “they pay $27.25 an hour; it’s for the family.” Sarah, a Jew from New York’s Brooklyn borough, had a practical bent of mind and couldn’t help think otherwise; all the Nussbaums were that way; and so were all the Greenblatts, Gutmans, and Greenbergs. But Sam, as much as he wanted to help his family, particularly his two young teenage boys who were deprived of too many things that he himself was deprived of growing up, just couldn’t see himself doing that, delivering mail door to door. (He had two older daughters, both living abroad; one in England and the other in Israel—the latter a 26-year-old vegan-eating religious Zionist married with three kids; the other a 32-year-old unmarried feminist lesbian teaching comparative literature at King’s College, London.).

It didn’t seem right, or fair. He had advanced degrees in both analytical chemistry and English literature, having graduated with honours at two distinguished universities. He considered himself an intellectual, last of a dying breed.

Often when meeting another member of the community the conversation quickly turned to profession and money. In one recent conversation with a woman in her sixties, a businesswoman of dubious distinction who had spent a few years in federal prison for mail fraud, but that was many years ago and she socked away enough money to start over. He couldn’t recall her name, but knew it began with an R; was it Rosenberg, Rosencrantz, Rosensweig, Rosenthal?. No, so, let’s call her Mrs. R.

“What do you do”?

“I am a writer,”

“A writer; how many books have you published?”

“Ah, none, I write chiefly for magazines and newspapers and some PR work.” Sam did have a couple of finished manuscripts but he could not find an agent interested in him

“So, do you make any money from this writing?”

“A little, but not much lately.”

“You should get a job with real money. With some action, you know what I mean. Take my grandson, Robbie, my adopted grandson from Venezuela. Not too good at school, but good with his hands. I enrolled him in a private course for $20,000 to become a GC. You know what that is?—a general contractor. My grandson will become a builder and make a good living. Then he can get married, have kids and provide for his family. That’s the way it’s done.”

Sam felt guilty, of course, because he was not providing for his family; the Jewish community just looked at him as if he were not there. Perhaps he wasn’t.

He had tried asking some of the wealthier members of the community for some leads or a job—after all, they always said a “Yid in need,” and we’re there for him; and this was especially notable during their yearly fundraising efforts. This year’s goal was ninety-three million dollars. The slogan was catchy, if not effective “We are all one mispocheh. Give to your brothers and sisters.” The community gave; last year it was eighty-eight million dollars. That was not enough.

Anyways, when he did find the courage to approach one of the Federation types, and told him that he needed a job, they invariably did one of two things: they said he needed to go to Tikvah; “they’re a wonderful group doing great things”; and then shook his hand and walked away. At other times, they looked at him blankly, waved at someone else, and said they had to have an important conversation with someone, but they would be right back. They never returned. He was left alone, holding a glass of apple juice in his right hand. Everyone else was laughing and talking about their vacations, their golf game and the newest restaurants they had recently ate at, and enjoyed.

It’s not that Sam felt poor; he had a house in a Jewish neighborhood and his wife was paying the mortgage, although the house was strictly speaking not in the area where the wealthy Jews lived; but he was walking distance from an Hasidic synagogue that his family sometimes attended. They could not afford to attend the fancy modern orthodox synagogue that the Federation types paid a $2,500 yearly membership and attended only for the High Holidays, essentially three days a year. But his children considered themselves poor, and this made Sam uneasy, sad, and sometimes resentful. He hated feeling that way.

It’s true that he and Sarah hadn’t taken a real vacation in 12 years, the last time being when they they went to Boca Raton, Florida, where they stayed at her late parents’ condo in a gated community. Now, however,  wasn’t the right time; “perhaps soon, we’ll go to Disney,” he told his two boys. He didn’t want to lie, to prevaricate, but he didn’t want to diminish, to deny any hope they might have carried. When he looked around the house for change and rolled it up and then promptly took the heavy and bulky rolls to the bank, sometimes totalling $40 or $50, it used to embarrass him as if it were not real money. Yet, it was and his family needed it to pay the monthly bills.

Sam passed his time by writing his daily post on his personal blog, which now had more than 10,000 readers a month, and growing steadily, but it didn’t generate any income. Not a dime; and Sam refused to accept advertisements, as a matter of principle. Sam also worked as a volunteer at an independent academic institute that defended liberal democratic rights; since it was independent, it also had little money. It depended on private donations; it had three full-time staff. Sam was not one of them, but he was given promises that as soon as it had more money, Sam would be hired as an editor for one of its many publications.

“We just need one benefactor to believe in our work,” the institute’s director often said at the monthly planning meetings Sam attended at a prominent liberal arts college, often held in a mall nondescript room adjacent to the main conference hall that bore the name of a prominent benefactor. Or perhaps it was the name of a major financial company. On the table there were bagels, cream cheese and hummus, along with bottled water and Diet Coke. In front of each chair, on the table, there was an agenda. 

The director, a heavy-set Jewish man in his early forties, with sparkling blue eyes and slightly balding, and bearing a slight east European accent and clean-shaven, was a full-time tenured professor in political science; the institute was one of his many projects. “One large donation and we can afford to pay you, Sam; it wouldn’t be much, I’m embarrassed to say, but $45,000 a year to start.”

It was plenty enough for Sam; so he continued volunteering and spreading the word to all his contacts about the institute’s great work in human rights and in fighting hate and protecting democracies, Israel included, around the world. He even approached one top official at the main offices of the national Jewish federation, while the official was eating lunch; he summarily dismissed him and his plans, saying now was not the right time for such discussions. Most of the people that he had over the years encountered at the Federation said that they already had well-funded organizations in nice offices doing similar work. Even so, in the face of such direct denial, Sam kept pressing forward. He had no choice.

Sam also kept busy with helping his boys with their homework, with domestic chores, with food shopping and with whatever was necessary to maintaining a family and a family home, including doing the odd repair. Yet, he often felt like he did not have a real purpose, as if he were the Dangling Man in a Saul Bellow novel; or was it more like Herzog, because he felt as if were a crank, chiefly because he failed to live up the secular Jewish covenant—one centred on the importance of financial success— that everyone around him was successfully and happily following. 

Small wonder, then, that in their eyes, Sam P. Goldberg was a failure.

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Copyright ©2013. Perry J. Greenbaum. All Rights Reserved. 

Publisher's Note: This is a work of fiction. While the author might have been inspired by some true-life events, names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.