by Ruth Deming
Five or six years ago, in a private message on Facebook, Joyce told me that Kramer was a bag lady in Boston. It seemed improbable but two other people from our hometown in Shaker Heights, Ohio, validated the message. For a while, there were sightings of Kramer in Boston, but then she disappeared.
Now, at last, I had the opportunity to find her.
Are you familiar with Shaker Heights, Ohio? It was and still is an affluent integrated community on the outskirts of Cleveland, which had many nice well-built brick homes built after “The Good War,” as the Second World War was called.
The principal was Mrs. Alice van Duesen, a pioneer in education. She would visit every single classroom at Mercer Elementary and encourage each and every student to do their best. Years later, our annual alumni report boasted the usual – doctors, lawyers, real estate developers, rabbis, business owners such as the Bobbi Brooks Apparel Company and the famous Ratner Brothers, great philanthropists.
What’s that Jewish saying? “Help one person and you save the world.”
Kramer was in my homeroom. She and I called each other by our last names. We were rivals on the outdoor hockey team – ground sticks, ground sticks, ground sticks – hit! And every other sport we played together.
Black men who had served their country with distinction came home but there were no jobs for them, unlike their white counterparts. Many of them took their own lives. They were familiar with weapons, so it was easy for them to use. Others turned to one of the easiest ways for American blacks to make money: selling drugs.
My late father, Harold J. Greenberg, had a large apparel operation downtown on Euclid Avenue, and the word was, “If you’re a hard worker, go interview with Mr. Greenberg.”
I worked for Dad for a few years. We would drive through terrible neighborhoods, rife with ramshackle homes, crack houses, abandoned houses crushed to the ground like sardine cans.
“In our family,” said Dad, “we believe in equality.” Many survivors of concentration camps worked at Majestic Specialties. He told me to watch for the little blue numbers tattooed on their arms.
I’ll never forget the smell – even forty years later- of walking into The Arts Craft Building on Superior Avenue. It was a combination of old wood, lubrication from conveyor belts, and an old lumbering elevator for freight – boxes upon boxes of blouses and sweaters. Dad let me choose a lovely white shirtwaist monogrammed with LLG, Leah Lynn Greenberg.
He was proud of me when I married a Jewish man, Herb Weisberg, and we had two fine children, Elisa and James. Herb, who worked very hard at his insurance agency, died of a massive heart attack after the children were grown and had kids of their own.
Finally, there was no excuse. I must find Susan Kramer.
I was no longer young and had retired from my job as a librarian. I’d moved into a small condo, with only two bedrooms. In my study, light poured in during the day. A small bed with a lavender coverlet was ready for me when I took one of my frequent naps.
Specially built blond shelving contained books of every kind. Two shelves were devoted to history books, including the book I had written, “Apparel Companies in Cleveland, Ohio.” People still ordered the book on Amazon. I was inordinately proud of getting a few hundred dollars a year of royalties. Yes, Alice Van Duesen would have been proud.
I asked no one’s opinion of traveling to Boston to find Kramer. I didn’t want to get into an argument about the perceived dangers of finding her.
From my book shelves, I took down an atlas of the United States, then turned to Massachusetts, and finally the city of Boston. With a yellow marker, I highlighted several pages around Boston. My destination.
Slipping on my purple back pack – purple is my favorite color – I waited outside the condo for Uber.
“Good morning,” I said, as he came out to greet me. He gave a little bow and said, “Abdul is my name.” He paused a moment and as if to answer my unasked question, said, “Originally from Iraq.”
Immediately I wanted to apologize for ruining their beautiful and historic country, but I said nothing.
“May I sit up front?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said, with his sibilant S’s.
After sitting on the comfortable seat of his gray Kia, I said, “In my retirement years I am free to go anywhere I please. Are there communities of Iraqis in America?”
“The Windy City, so unlike our home country, has a “Little Iraq,” at least that’s what I call it. My cousin and his family live there. They are not rich, like they were in Erbil, but they are grateful for their new home.”
I pictured a small townhouse with a lovely red Persian rug and a bronze-colored coffee urn.
As we drove Abdul regaled me of the wonders of his country.
“Before the soldiers and that bad man, Mr. Bush, destroyed my country, many thousands of years before him, we had famous monuments that were destroyed by armies, what for, I do not know.”
I looked at his face, his profile. This is the face his wife saw. Her photo was on the dashboard, wearing a colorful head scarf.
He enumerated the treasures of his country, as if he were reciting the alphabet.
“The Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse at Alexandria, the Hanging Gardens of Babylonia.”
“And I, Mr. Abdul, am hanging my head in sadness. God makes and we destroy.”
I am what they call “A Jew of the Heart,” which means a nonbeliever. I must confess I am proud
of not needing a god to use as a crutch, to make things right for the terrible inhumanities since
humankind roamed around in caves.
At a rest stop, we got out to stretch our legs. I opened a thermos of Dunkin Donuts coffee and
drank a couple of sips, and ate half of my egg salad sandwich on rye.
Back in the car, I mentioned his beautiful wife – “Yes, Sarina, is a beautiful woman” – and then I told him about my friend Susan Kramer, who had disappeared.
“Such problems, the whole world over,” he said.
“Have you any idea where she might be?” I asked, almost in a whisper.
“You must find out where the homeless people are,” he said.
“Ah, yes,” I said. “Their encampments.”
He dropped me off and my credit card automatically paid Mr. Abdul.
I waved goodbye as I nervously looked around what must be “the encampment.” Susan Kramer,
I thought. I will find you. I will save you.
It was a fine April day with a few clouds moving slow as an old woman in the sky.
Settling my back pack over my shoulders, I forced a weak smile as I walked among men and women sprawled over a vast acreage, as if they were at a picnic. Focusing on one woman, I saw she had missing teeth like a Jack-o-lantern, and her long dark hair was filthy. How do you get used to this, I wondered? Well, you can get used to anything, even Auschwitz.
I wanted to see if I could find Kramer myself, before asking a single soul.
“Herb, my darling,” I prayed to my late husband. “Help me find Kramer.” Often when I drove my white Toyota Corolla, I would ask his help in letting me merge onto the interstates in Philadelphia, and in one daunting case, “Please, Herb, don’t let that cop car be for me,” as the siren screamed to wake the dead.
Too bad I didn’t have a cane to steady myself as I walked through what seemed to be dozens of people. These were God’s people, made in his own image. After half an hour, I was tired. I looked down and saw a young man, handsome with mounds of black hair.
“Sir,” I said. “May I sit down?”
“Do whatever floats your boat, Ma’am. I sure don’t care.” His head rocked back and forth. Stoned, I figured.
A woman sitting next to him offered me a joint. Yes, a stick of marijuana. I looked at her, thought a moment, and then inhaled, coughing afterward. I remembered how to do it from my college years at Drexel University, where I got my master’s in library science. Prudes we are not!
Was it giving me insight, as I inhaled and exhaled? I hoped so.
Standing up shakily, I traveled along in my pilgrimage.
“Susan Kramer. Susan Kramer,” I called through the throng of noise that you find at a rock concert.
A couple of people heard me.
“Oh, you want Dr. Kramer?”
I couldn’t answer I was so surprised.
“She’s up there in that little shack.”
Hoisting my backpack on my shoulders, I walked up a slight hill and came to a small tumbledown wooden shack.
My knock on the door was greeted with “Come in!” spoken in a midwestern drawl like my own.
When I entered, I saw a woman all in white. Her thick white ringlets fell over her shoulders. She
was wearing a white nurse’s uniform and cushy white nurse’s shoes.
I blinked my eyes.
“Kramer?” I asked. “Is that you?”
A broad smile played over her lips.
“Greenberg!” she said, laughing and grabbing both my hands. “I’d know you anywhere. Ready for some tennis?”
We laughed together and I collapsed on her soft green sofa.
About the Author:
Ruth Z. Deming is a poet and short story writer who lives in Willow Grove, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her works have been published in Mad Swirl, Literary Yard, ShortStory,net and other writing venues. She runs New Directions, a support group for people with depression, bipolar disorder and their loved ones. “Yes I Can: My Bipolar Journey” details her triumph over bipolar disorder. A mental health advocate, she educates the public about this treatable illness.