1973. Marvin was the photo editor at the Brooklyn College student newspaper. I liked him a lot, and when, in 1997, after I had an op-ed piece published in the New York Times, he saw it, and trying to locate me, called my mother, he described himself as an “old friend.” Yet I recall hanging out with him only in groups of people. I don’t think we ever did anything by ourselves.
Once I found an old poem my girlfriend had written about a boy she was in love with, and I’d assumed it was about her ex-boyfriend. Only after I published a short story that implied just that did Randi tell me the poem was not about her ex-boyfriend. It was really about Marvin. He never knew either.
In the early 1980s we all lived within a few blocks of each other on the Upper West Side and sometimes met for dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, Marvin Gardens. Marvin didn’t like Marvin Gardens all that much, but he ate there because Randi and I liked their pasta.
When Marvin’s younger brother Milton came to Brooklyn College, I guess the first thing I noticed about him was that unlike Marvin, he wore a yarmulke. Otherwise, they both looked pretty much alike. Actually, people said I looked enough like them to be their third brother, but they had their own real-life third brother, a kid in high school named Melvin. Melvin didn’t wear a yarmulke.
Their family lived just a couple of blocks away from the house where I lived with my parents and two brothers, and I used to stop there sometimes to see Milton on my way to the Kings Plaza mall, which was down the street from their apartment. It was a small apartment because their father didn’t make a lot of money; he owned some run-down, worthless buildings in Hell’s Kitchen, and his tenants always had trouble coming up with the rent.
Mostly Milton and I would hang out, tell jokes, listen to music, and smoke pot.
One day I asked him why he wore a yarmulke since his brothers didn’t, his father didn’t, and he didn’t seem to be particularly Orthodox.
“It’s because I’m proud of being Jewish,” Milton told me. “Besides, if you wear a yarmulke, you can smoke pot in the street and nobody will bother you.”
Since we were smoking pot during this conversation, I assumed the second part of his answer was either a joke or the result of being high.
The next day, between classes at school, I asked him if yarmulkes really provided immunity from arrest for public pot smoking. He told me to come to his house that afternoon and he’d show me.
When I got there, he had at the ready a joint and a knitted yarmulke and bobby pin for me. I put it on – the only yarmulkes I’d ever worn before that were the shiny ones I got from bar mitzvahs and weddings – and we lit up and then started walking down Avenue U, around the perimeter of Kings Plaza, past Macy’s, heading toward Flatbush Avenue.
As we walked, we passed the joint back and forth and toked. Nobody seemed to notice, but then there weren’t that many people around on Avenue U. Flatbush Avenue was the busiest street in all of Brooklyn and that would be the big test.
Crime was bad in the 1970s, and they had cops walking the beat in every neighborhood. One of them, a tall Irish-looking officer, was coming toward us. My heart started to beat fast. Milton passed me the joint again. I was afraid to take a hit so I just held it. But I knew the cop had just seen us smoking.
As he approached us, the cop looked us up and down and said, “Afternoon, boys,” and he smiled. I nodded.
Milton smiled back and took the joint from my fingers and said, “Afternoon, officer,” as we strolled on.
There were crowds of shoppers coming out of the Flatbush Avenue entrance of the mall and people waiting for the Flatbush Avenue, Utica Avenue, Ralph Avenue, and Avenue R buses. Nobody noticed us smoking pot in public.
Milton put out the roach with his index finger and thumb, stuffed it into the pocket of his shirt, and walked with me into Kings Plaza to get pizza at Sbarro’s. (Milton wasn’t kosher, either.)
“Okay, you were right,” I said as we sat down at a table with our slices and our Cokes. “But how do you account for it?”
“It’s one of G-d’s mysteries,” Milton says. “I don’t really understand it. Maybe people are afraid they’ll be called anti-Semitic if they say something.”
Still, marijuana immunity or not, I was an atheist. I undid the bobby pin, took off the yarmulke, and was about to hand it to Milton when I realized I probably should kiss it first, so I did.
He folded it up neatly and stuffed into his pocket with the roach. The bobby pin would later double as a roach clip.
I left Brooklyn and New York City many years ago but I still keep in touch with people by phone and by e-mail. I am currently teaching AP English at a Jewish community high school in a Sun Belt city. At our school everyone calls a yarmulke a “kippah,” something I will never get used to.
Today Marvin and Milton are well-known real estate developers in Manhattan. Both of them live in cavernous co-ops on Park Avenue, and Milton serves on the board of directors for the Times Square business improvement district. At their meetings, Milton usually sits next to Pinch Sulzberger, the New York Times publisher, or so he tells me.
Milton still wears a yarmulke, setting an example for his teenage twins.
Like me, Milton hasn’t smoked pot in over 25 years. He and his wife have given their sons the usual parental warnings about using drugs.
Unfortunately, Milton knows that the power of religious pride is very strong.