Dr. Zizmor’s Big Idea

by

07/31/2022

Neighborhood: Featured, Subway

“So, when you’re not here at Barney Greengrass serving smoked fish, you’re a writer, eh? That’s interesting. Interesting. We should talk. I have a big idea. We’ve got to talk, yeah.”

These weren’t the first words Dr. Jonathan Zizmor had ever spoken to me, but they marked a transition in our relationship from my simply being his server to something more. I was now, in his eyes, fully human. Not just a guy in whites. Not just a man moving plates. For one thing, I was a writer. And for another, I was a writer for whom he might have a use.

It’s likely that Dr. Zizmor assumed that I already knew about him, before he knew this something about me, for Zizmor was an iconic and very public New York figure, a savvy self-promoter. Anyone who rode the subway, starting some time in the 1980s and for the quarter century that followed, knew his ads well. He was a dermatologist and his ubiquitous advertisements used before-and-after pictures of patients that were both difficult to look at and hard to believe. Could Zizmor really have made this woman’s skin so much clearer? It didn’t seem possible. Was it possible?

He was a nervous fellow, Zizmor, and he usually came into the deli with either his wife or his mother or both. His mother was old, and wore a red wig. Her son wore a black toupee, for a while anyway, before resigning himself to walking around with his bald pate out in the open with his remaining fringe dyed a shade of reddish-brown. His mother would have nova, eggs, and onions on a bialy, a popular order at Barney Greengrass. She didn’t talk much, and they would eat their meals in silence. Unless, that is, Zizmor was asking her if she needed anything. “Do you need anything, Ma? Are you all right, Ma? Are you sure, Ma?”

His wife looked like a movie star. She dressed like one too, in furs and jewels. She drank club soda, and had her own serving of nova, eggs, and onions. She was friendly, and even if her big brown eyes and Botox-injected lips suggested a certain lack of seriousness, she was a serious person. Her husband was too. They were all bullshit, and no bullshit—and I liked that contradictory style.

Dr. Zizmor ordered smoked salmon on a toasted plain bagel. Easy on the butter. He would remove some of the nova from the sandwich, eat half, then have the second half open-faced. He would save the last quarter of the bagel to be enjoyed at the end with some strawberry jam, a kind of dessert. After finishing, he would throw his balled-up napkin on the plate. He had good reason: Between the leftover pieces of bagel crust, slivers of smoked salmon, and the smear of strawberry jam, his plate had the postprandial look of a toddler’s. Zizmor wouldn’t want to spend any extra seconds looking at his own mess. Me neither.

In fact, it was while I was removing his dirty plate one day that he asked what I did when I wasn’t at the restaurant that he learned that I was a writer. Wasting no time at all—and Dr. Zizmor struck me as the kind of person who lived in a perpetual state of hurry—he asked me, “You ever write screenplays?”

“Sure,” I said. This was a lie.

“I’ve got an idea for a TV show, a great idea,” he said.

Zizmor was alone today. No wife, no mother. Just a New York Post to keep him company.

“What’s your idea?” I asked.

“Kiddo, I can’t talk about it here. Too many people around,” he mumbled. “It’s top secret. Place like this, people hear your conversations.”

I looked back across the dining room. Only a few people were seated at this late-afternoon hour. No matter, I said, “Then we should meet somewhere else. I’ll meet you anywhere, any day.”

“Okay, okay, give me your number,” said Zizmor, taking out his flip phone.

I told him my number and said to call me whenever he was ready.

He called later that day. I couldn’t believe it. I was on the phone with the Dr. Zizmor! I had met Mickey Mantle as a child. This struck me as being almost as good. He proposed we get together at noon the following day at a Pain Quotidien on Madison between 84th and 85th.

“There will be a lot of people in there, too,” I said. “Eavesdroppers, presumably.”

“Nah. It’s too loud in that place. No one will be able to hear us.”

Zizmor was right. The place was jammed, and I could barely hear him speak above the patrons’ chatter. He certainly hadn’t gotten dressed up for me. Dr. Z, as he referred to himself in his subway advertisements, wore gray sweatpants and a loose-fitting white T-shirt. His sneakers were gray New Balance. He had the unshaven face of a man who no longer had to show up to an office. Was he still practicing dermatology? I wasn’t sure, and I wouldn’t ask. What if the question offended him? I thought we would launch right into our discussion of his film script. Zizmor had something else in mind. 

“How’s your financial portfolio?”

“My financial what?”

“Your financial portfolio,” he said.

I said, “Honestly, I don’t have one.”

“You don’t have one? No, that’s no good. Come on, kiddo. We got to think about your future.”

“Do we?”

“Yes. See, I like to play the whole stock market. It’s a pretty stable bet. The market goes up, it doesn’t go down. Look at the numbers. What are we up to now? Always breaking a new record. 10,000, 11,000, 12,000, 13,000, 14,000. Up, up, up. You play the whole market at once. I’ve been making a killing. What do you say we get some of your money invested there?”

“I don’t have any money to invest.”

“God, well, okay, okay. Let’s make a hit TV show, so you can be rich.”

“Okay,” I said. I wasn’t annoyed by his money questions. In fact, I was charmed that Dr. Zizmor would take an interest in my financial well being. 

“So, tell me about this show,” I said.

“Good, good, yes. Excellent. Okay, kiddo.” Zizmor looked over one shoulder and then the other. No one was listening in. “All right,” he said, “do you know what a get is?”

“A get?”

“A get. You’re Jewish, aren’t you? I mean, if you’re not Jewish, I don’t know if you can be my guy.”

“Yes, I’m Jewish, but I’m not observant. Does that matter?”

“Does that matter? You have to ask yourself that question. I can’t answer for you.”

“I mean, as far as the script.”

“Oh, no, I don’t think that matters much.”

“Well then, no, I don’t know what a get is.”

A get, Dr. Z explained, was a document that a husband must present to his wife to make a divorce final according to Jewish law. “A woman who doesn’t get a get from her husband can’t remarry. You got me?”

“I think so.”

“So what happens is… and it’s awful… you have these women who are abandoned by their husbands. Their husbands run away from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for example, and end up in Minsk, in Bangkok, in Johannesburg, anywhere, never to be heard from again. But these women can’t remarry unless they get the get and because they don’t get the get, they just end up wasting away, all alone. They can’t take a new husband and start a new life. They need the get. Got me?”

“Got it.”

“You ever watch Charlie’s Angels?” Dr. Zizmor asked.

“Ah, Charlie’s Angels? Not really, no.”

“But you’re aware of the show?”

“Sure, of course.”

“So, imagine this: Imagine a Charlie’s Angels where the angels are sent out around the world to get the get. I’m talking about these women going out and finding these runaway husbands and dragging them back before a rabbi and forcing them to give the get.”

“They’re get-hunters?”

“Exactly.”

“An all-female wrecking crew of get-hunters.”

“That’s right.”

“You know, that’s not bad,” I told him. Fact was, I didn’t think it was that bad. Whether a market existed for this sort of thing was another story. I said, “I like it, doc.”

“So, what do you say? You want to write the pilot?”

I had no interest in writing Zizmor’s television pilot. But then I couldn’t exactly turn him down, either. Our relationship was just starting to flower. I told him, “Let me do some research and we’ll talk in a month.”

“Okay,” said Zizmor. “But tell no one about this. I mean it. This idea is too good. Someone will steal it. You promise?”

“I promise.”

“You swear?”

“I swear.”

“Okay, good.”

*

I never did research the get. Over the next months, Dr. Zizmor would often visit Barney Greengrass. He was always friendly and never played up any hurt regarding my rejection of his big idea. In fact, to the contrary, he still brought up the script with me on occasion, telling me we really had something great on our hands and asking me to please not tell anyone. I wouldn’t disappoint Dr. Z by informing him that an idea wasn’t worth much in Hollywood, that right at this moment tens of thousands of ideas were being bandied about by filmmakers and producers and everyone in between, and that almost none of them would ever amount to more than a conversation like the one we’d already had. He was so enamored with his idea, though, so protective of it. I found it endearing, almost sweet in its naïveté. 

On the other hand, I was surprised that Dr. Zizmor didn’t possess a deeper understanding of the value of an idea. After all, consider his subway advertisement. Hold it up as an idea, one that had not yet been executed. Now imagine Dr. Zizmor himself describing for you how within the ad space, you would see a hard-to-look-at, low-quality, before-and-after photo of a patient set beneath a rainbow with a pale, narcoleptic Zizmor hovering on the side. Now imagine being told that this idea was a true winner and being made to swear that you not tell a soul because someone might steal it. You would think this person had no business being in business. But then you would be wrong. It was a great idea. One of the most successful advertisements of all time. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been questioning the value of Zizmor’s idea after all.

In the years ahead, Dr. Zizmor and I lost touch with one another. He retired from dermatology, and I from the deli. But from time to time I still see one of his ads on the subway, a mysteriously remaining remnant from his last installment of ads, hiding out or perhaps even protected by those in charge, and it always comes as a surprise to me. “This ad,” I’ll think, “What an awful idea. I wonder why no one has stolen it.”

***

Julian Tepper is the author of three novels, Balls, Ark and Between the Records. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Playboy, Zyzzyva, The Brooklyn Rail, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post and elsewhere. He is a born-and-raised, lifelong New Yorker.  

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