The French psychotherapist and homeopath Rene Allendy said that the number sixty is deeply embedded in our world and in our psyches.In his 1921 book “Number Symbolisms: Essays on Arithmosophy” (I love that word ‘arithmosophy’ – what hegemon called gematria), Allendy runs through the numerology and number theory of sixty – its principal integer factors reflected in the hours of the day and the days of a three hundred sixty year by the ancient Egyptians, and for the Chinese, cycles of sixty years divided into tenths trunks of eras and twelfths branches of years, and he asserts rightly or wrongly that th number sixty represents the Earth’s karmic providence because of the Buddha had sixty disciples. The serpent of Eden in its Hebrew name has the gematria value of sixty – (according to Allendy, and he is wrong nachash ‘נָחָשׁ’ is 358 – נ is fifty, ח is eight, and ש is 300), and the sixtieth card of the tarot is the Devil. Allendy was Anais Nin’s therapist and then lover in the early thirties, and Nin drew from that relationship when she transformed her unexpurgated diaries into the novel ‘Henry and June,’ about Nin’s sexual adventures with Henry Miller and June Miller and all her other bed partners.
Thus sex. A year before Allendy’s book on Arithmosophy, Sigmund Freud (another psychotherapist who dabbled in unethical sexual relationships with his assistants and clients) published “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” where he divided the prime urges of life into Eros and Thanatos. Eros, the Greek god of love, represents the drives of fertility, passion, survival, pleasure, reproduction, thirst, hunger, and avoidance of pain. Thanatos is the end of life, the spirit of death, the drive to death, the cultivation of sickness, rot, aggression toward others, self-harm, and suicide.
So it was that 1960 Ford Thunderbird, there on the corner of Yellowstone Boulevard and 66th Road in Forest Hills, fallen between the two stools of libido and rigor mortis, on the Third of April, Twenty-Twenty. A Ford from the Sixtieth year of the previous century, in its own sixtieth year. Thanks, Arithmosophy!
Chuck Berry had a quick two-minute novelty song in 1960 about a drag-race between a Thunderbird and Jaguar with the refrain “Slow down little Jaguar, keep cool little Thunderbird Ford.” The Troggs covered the song in 1966. Drag-racing is a heady twined cord of both Eros and Thanatos. In my Pontiac I drag raced my best friend Jason in his Camaro on midnight roads in the Catskills once, and I remember the exhilaration and fear of violent death.
On March 26, 2020, my wife’s grandmother Shirley fell in her apartment’s bathroom and broke her hip. She lived in Riverwalk, the assisted living annex of the Hebrew Home for the Aged in the Bronx, and the nearest hospitals to Riverwalk were the northern outpost of Columbia Presbyterian in Inwood, Jacoby Medical Center further east, and Saint Joseph’s up in Yonkers. Because of the blossoming covid situation in the city hospitals during that first nightmarish wave, she was brought to Saint Joe’s where an aide hired by my wife’s aunt attended her in the emergency room and in her sickroom while Shirley waited for the surgery to repair her hip – which would not be forthcoming at a tertiary medical facility like Saint Joseph’s, not during the avalanche of covid cases at the end of March of 2020.
I should say that Shirley and her then living husband Frank were the first two members of Leah’s family whom I met – even before we were formally dating – in May of 2003. Later that year Leah and I stayed together overnight in the same room (and on the same excruciating pull-out sofa) in her grandparents’ Lakehurst house even before we did similarly in my future in-laws’ home, or even in my parents’ home. Frank played college basketball in the late 1930s at Long Island University, when Jews dominated the sport, and at six foot three, he towered over his son Howard, my dentist father-in-law. But Frank died of nosocomial multiply-resistant staphylococcus aureus sepsis from his own botched hip surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center at the Paul Kimball hospital in Lakewood, NJ, nine days after Leah and I married in October 2004, on my birthday. He died in a room down the hall from where my grandfather died in the same hospital in 1978. My oldest son is named for him. I keep bottles of Frank’s liquor – including a sealed 1941 bottle of Dewar’s twelve-year Scotch whiskey – in my infrequently visited drinks cabinet.
So my wife’s aunt, a department head in the New York State Attorney General’s office at Helen Hayes hospital in Nyack pulled as many strings as she could find to transfer her mother to White Plains Hospital, where the surgery was conducted on the 31st of March. I review my diary and I see that the evening of the 31st of March, I stood unmasked indoors in the dining room of a fried chicken joint in Elmhurst, desperate to avoid cooking yet another dinner to the din of sirens. Hunger – the urge of Eros, and heedlessness – the urge of Thanatos. The fried chicken was terrible.
Shirley awoke from her sedation and we spoke to her on the phone the next day, when she said her aide had been sent away because she had a fever. Shirley quickly developed a cough and fever of her own and sank into a non-responsive coma, from which she was roused only briefly on the second of April when I heard her say on the phone – “GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”
My father-in-law called the next morning at seven am with the news that Shirley died overnight. She was ninety-six, and one of four hundred ninety-six New Yorkers to die that day of coronavirus, as we climbed the cirques of Death Mountain.
It was Friday, and there wasn’t enough time for funeral arrangements to be completed. Her Hevra Kadisha was notified and her graveside funeral service next to Frank in Mount Hebron Cemetery in Flushing was scheduled for Sunday, April 5, 2020, at eleven a.m. We sat crushed with the weight of Shirley’s passing. Passover was also imminent, and we were floored with the efforts to prepare while under lockdown. An hour and a half after Howard’s call, I took delivery of a frozen Seder from the caterer who did our wedding.
The thought of preparing food over the whole weekend while being besieged with phone calls and lonely children and a spouse stunned with grief was narcoleptic. The humble frozen plastic individual frozen dinner packages of chicken cutlets, cubed potatoes, and carrot-prune tzimmes in the box from Foremost contrasted very sharply with the spectacular meal they made sixteen years earlier – a meal Shirley missed because she was with her husband on his deathbed.
The lockdown was nearing three weeks at that point, and I broke into tears for a minute trying to order my thoughts. The obvious solution, as with so many things, is to spend money fixing a small problem to reserve one’s endurance and life-force for the larger problems. I called Aaron’s Gourmet on Woodhaven Boulevard – where I shot the ’62 Nova II wagon five months ago – and dropped five hundred dollars with Alex Blumberg, who was an aufschnit apprentice with Herr Bloch up at Bloch und Falk in Washington Heights thirty years ago, on a curbside pickup of kosher food packages for us and for my sister-in-law’s family on the other side of Queens Boulevard.
The packages – two full sabbath packages and two Sunday family meals – chicken, salmon, brisket, all frozen, all kosher and cooked before the pandemic would be ready at two p.m. One pair was for us and the other pair for my sister-in-law and her family. I took the two year old out on his walk and took pictures of the white cherry blossoms.
The two year old went down for his nap after lunch and I girded myself to go out. There was a steady rain. God-DAMN the pathetic fallacy works. By this time, I had acquired a cloth facemask and bandanna, and I kept a little spritz bottle of ethyl alcohol in my pocket to sanitize my hands and surfaces. I wiped down the elevator buttons and door handles with a handkerchief and alcohol, got in my car and drove over to Alex, who put the plastic bags with the frozen kosher-for-passover meals on the sidewalk, where I retrieved them and put them in the back seat.
The trip to my sister-in-law would take me past Forest Hills Long Island Jewish Hospital, which I had passed several times in my walks with the baby over the previous three weeks. Did they have a refrigerator truck out back yet? They did. Thanatos.
I will drive around the block for a look at the front. I thought. Down I drove to Yellowstone, making the right, and there was the Thunderbird sitting on the corner.
Around the corner right up 66th Road I drove, snapping away with my Blackberry at the T-bird, with five hundred dollars worth of frozen kosher food in the back seat, behind an ambulance heading up to the emergency room in the front of the hospital on 102nd Avenue further up the hill, I turned on 103rd Avenue to drive past. This was history, and this was my life, and here it was real as cheddar cheese.
I gave the packages of frozen dinners to my then-brother-in-law. He was less interested in the funeral arrangements than he was in whether the food was kosher for passover and gluten-free. I thought that was odd, but then, my former brother-in-law was very distant and emotionally unavailable. Over the next three weeks, his conduct neglecting his wife while she was seriously ill with coronavirus – with which she became symptomatic just after the funeral on Sunday, that neglect would be the final nail in the coffin for their marriage.
The morning of Shirley’s burial, there was more traffic inside the cemetery than on the Van Wyck Expressway. My wife insisted on driving – to hold herself together – but she didn’t really know the way, so I had to come, and because of the pandemic, there was no babysitting, so our children came. There was a graveside limit of a socially distanced maximum of fifteen attendees, which was okay, because I had to stay at the car with the baby, watching the funeral being zoomed by my wife’s first cousin from one hundred feet away across the stumpy forest of gravestones. I was the only person watching the zoom inside the cemetery. My eight-year old son went instead of me.
There is a Jewish tradition that the last full unrequitable labor one can do for another person is to cover their coffin with earth at the end of their funeral service. One shovels the earth with the shovel turned upside down, to make the effort more difficult, take much more time, because we must linger in our mourning. I had a little yellow plastic snow shovel in the car for the children. My wife took the shovel – each attendee brought his own shovel because of covid – and helped bury her grandmother.
Shirley would have been thirty-six when this Thunderbird was manufactured. She was a wise, strong, and beautiful woman, and I was fortunate to know her.
The Thunderbird sat parked at that corner for a year, since alternate side parking regulations were suspended. I returned in November 2020 and took pictures of it for Paul, intending a post about the curbside classics of pandemic walks. I decided to tell this story first.