My father appeared to be pretty near illiterate -- anyway in English. It took him a couple of hours every night to struggle his way through the newspaper, and he spoke his adopted language atrociously.
Sometimes, in order to give my father a taste of higher culture, I'd fill him in on what I was reading. Once, on a long car ride, I told him the story of Macbeth. It turned out he knew it as well as I did -- better, in fact, since he appeared to remember scenes left out of my edition of the collected plays -- like the one in which Macbeth's father gives his son advice, and the one in which he gives Lady Macbeth (still alive at the end of the play, as he is) a good talking-to, and she agrees to mend her ways. I tried Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and King Lear, and he knew them too, in recognizable form, but with variations that would have amazed the man from Stratford-upon-Avon. Hamlet gets married, settles down, and forgets all the nonsense; Julius Caesar retires to a resort on the Mediterranean; and Lear's children are surprised by the king's lively dance number at the end of the play.
"Dose are Jewish shows. I saw dem in Varsaw."
"You saw them in translation," I told him.
"Naw, dey vas in Yiddish. Dey vas by a Jewish writer, name of Shakespeare. I tink I knew him. I used to go to deh café vhere all deh writers vas."
"Dad, Shakespeare was English, and he lived around the end of the sixteenth century."
"I don't tink he vas det old -- and English -- maybe he vas, maybe he vasn't. Even your uncle used to pretend he vas an Englishman."
The uncle he referred to was Boris, the most colorful and cultured of my father's five gangster brothers from the old days in Warsaw. Boris, when he wasn't participating in holdups, dealt in objets d'art of dubious provenance. He was also the man to see if one needed documents, passports, bills of sale.
And, as I said, Boris had culture. Boris had many wealthy and prominent acquaintances, owned paintings of zaftig women with extra-bright pink nipples and fanciful ceramic sculptures in vivid polychrome, played the cello, and, from time to time, might be seen walking a borzoi, poodle, dalmatian, or some other fashionable dog in the Ogrod Saski, or Saxon Gardens, then the favorite resort of the aristocrats. He acquired, trained, and sold these dogs to the quality, and, like his other offerings, their authenticity was questionable.
Even more than my father, Boris liked to hang out with writers, and he knew a lot of them. For a long time, I assumed it was merely another manifestation of my father's craziness that he imagined he had known Shakespeare personally, but it's possible that some translators of world literature then residing in Warsaw's Yiddish district might have put it about that they were in person those authors whose works they rendered.
I could be wrong about this, but I am pretty sure that Jack London never lived upstairs over his father's tailor shop in the Stare Miasto with an angry wife and three children; nor did he pal around with my uncle Boris. But my father was convinced he had done just that.
"Sure! Who else but det Jack London talked your uncle into going to Alyeska?"
These were the serene days of a Warsaw now barely remembered, of lime trees and cafés on Ujazdowska Alesa Avenue, vendors, musicians, and street characters in Sigismund Square. I imagine my father, a healthy young hoodlum, promenading in the Krasinski Gardens.
He and his brothers were Jewish thugs, and it was a point of pride that they were more cultivated and showed more style than the Poles who followed the same profession.
I have a photograph of my father and his brothers in those days. They are manicured and pomaded, holding whangee canes and kidskin gloves, wearing flash neckties, and staring into the camera with the expression of cape buffalo contemplating a tourist.
The enterprise of my father and my five uncles was that of hijacking goods from express wagons, then ransoming them back to their consignors according to a strict schedule of fees. Anyone declining to redeem his merchandise would begin a run of bad luck requiring doctors, the fire brigade, or even the rabbinate -- but since everybody was familiar with the system, serious mishaps were generally avoided.
The brothers did well. They were treated with respect, and their earnings were above average; they wore snappy clothes, acquired such art objects as they were able to appreciate, attended the finest brothels, and knew everybody.
Including Jack London (aka Ossip Weintraub, the tailor's son), author of The Call of the Wild, known locally as A Ruf Fun der Vildernish. The adventure writer and political radical fascinated Boris, and they frequently spent long nights drinking wine and yearning for the life of the trail and the land of the midnight sun.
Before long, Boris was suffering from Klondike fever, gold madness, wanderlust, and itchy feet. Encouraged by London, who would have gone with him, were he not facing a deadline for White Fang, or Der Vyser Tzon, Boris set out for the Yukon.
The story of Boris's journey from Warsaw to Moscow, from Gorky to Sverdlovsk, from Omsk to Novosibirsk, from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk, then to Ulaanbaatar, Tientsin, Mukden, Harbin, and finally to Vladivostok, has been told and retold in my family ever since he made it. Each teller has emphasized those aspects important to him or her. It was my mother who told me the story -- apparently my ordinarily taciturn father had let loose at some point and related it -- so what I know about Boris's crossing of the Russo-Siberian landmass, plus chunks of Mongolia and China, is that he consumed nothing but tea and dry toast the whole way, and never once used a public toilet.
It was Boris himself who told me what happened after he took ship to Juneau. When I knew him, Boris was an old man. He spent most of his time in an overheated room full of garish ceramics. I remember him, resembling Erich von Stroheim, wearing a silk dressing gown, smoking yellow Sobranie "Chaliapin" cigarettes, and drinking cup after cup of tea from an ormolu samovar. It was hard to imagine him as a sourdough and dog-musher, but this is the story he told me.
"On deh ship ve vas playing cards a lot. Mostly I remember euchre and klaviash ve played. I vas a good player, and I made it a lot of money. So vhen I'm landing in Juneau, I got vhat ve calling a 'grubstake.' By dis I'm going to a nice hotel, vit a hot bath is extra a dollar, and I'm having a bath, and by a barber a haircut and a shave, and in deh hotel I'm eating corned beef vit potatoes, and I'm tinking vhat I'm going to do next.
"So vhile I'm sitting, comes in deh only Jewish gold miner in deh whole Alyeska, by deh name Jacob Grossberg, but dey calling him 'deh Kootenai Yid.' So deh Yid sees me, I'm putting a potato in mine mouth, and he says, 'Hey, boychik! Dis a long vay frum deh shtetl.'
"So I answer him, 'I ain't no farm boy, mister.' At dis time, I don't know he's deh Kootenai Yid, but anyways I'm polite, because it always pays you show respect, never knowing maybe dis individual is in a bad mood and he pulls out a pistol and shoots a couple holes in you, just he should feel better. So I'm calling deh Yid mister, and he throws a leg over a chair and puts me deh qvestion, 'So, Yankel, you came by vay frum Noo Yawk?'
"'No sir,' I tell deh Yid. 'I'm here frum Poland, deh hard vay. My name ain't Yankel, and please do me deh honor I should buy you a slug vhiskey.'
"So I can see right avay, Jacob Grossberg, deh Kootenai Yid, is sizing me up, and vhat he sees, he likes. 'So vhat could you did so bad in Poland det you hev to come all deh vay to Alyeska?'
"'I'll tell you, mister,' I say. 'I didn't do nawting so bad. I vas in business vit mine brothers back in Varsaw, and I came to Alyeska to see vhat's vhat.'
"'So vhat business?' deh Yid asks.
"'Removals,' I answer him right back.
"'Is det like, I hev something waluable, you remove it?'
"'Exact,' I tell him.
"'And vhat if I don't vant you should remove?'
"'Den I'm persuading.'
"'And vhat argument you gonna persuade vit?'
"So vitout no more ado, I go to work for deh Kootenai Yid. I'm protecting his gold, and he is loining me deh vays of deh Northland."
Apparently, Boris did a number of distinctly odd jobs for Jacob Grossberg and earned the approval -- or at least the respect -- of the hard-bitten and frostbitten community, and the soubriquet "Warsaw Willy."
"Never give your right name on deh road," Boris told me.
After about a year, Boris said good-bye to the Kootenai Yid, bought a team of Malamutes and the rest of a prospector's outfit, and set out to strike it rich on his own.
Paydirt eluded Boris. In a number of forays up the Chilkoot, he prospected extensively in the Yukon Territory and found no gold. After each unsuccessful attempt, he'd amass another grubstake, reprovision, and try again.
Needless to say, Boris had become expert at living rough and, like many of the sourdoughs, was more at ease on the trail than in town. As Boris told the story, at a certain point he had more or less given up the idea of striking gold, but continued to prospect simply because it was the most agreeable thing to do.
Boris had learned to anticipate changes in weather by a thousand signs. A sudden squall could be fatal. He had learned to judge the condition of snow on the trail by sight, touch, smell, and taste. If he fell into freezing water, he could strip and dress himself in dry gear, thus saving his life, while keeping his team in harness and moving. And he was able to make first-class pastrami from caribou meat.
So it was that Boris found himself, many days from any sign of human life, enjoying a campfire and the company of his dogs, when Jake spoke to him.
Jake, a large brown Malamute, had been Boris's lead dog from the beginning. Jake had selected himself for this position of honor and responsibility in the usual way -- by intimidating the other dogs. Some dogs are cut out to be leaders, and some are not; and if a dog is anything else, as the saying goes, the view never changes. Where Jake differed from the standard "alpha," or executive-type dog, was in his affability and abundant charm. Even when chewing to rags another dog who had given in to the inborn prompting to test Jake's authority, Jake appeared bemused, even kindly. And he never held a grudge -- Jake would often show solicitude or affection to the dog he had just fanged, shredded, and de-eared.
A dog like this becomes a real colleague and helper to the musher, and can enjoy a status midway between dog and human. Jake was not tethered at night, as the rest of the team was. He would have his evening meal out of a tin pan with Boris, beside the campfire, after the other dogs had been tossed their hunks of frozen fish. The last sight Boris would see from within his sleeping robe at night, and the first sight he would see in the morning, would be Jake lying nearby, gazing out into the dark or the distance, alert to possible danger.
It is certain that the instant Jake knew Boris was unconscious, he himself would drop off and sleep like a stone, waking up ten seconds before his master -- he also stole food, feigned affection, and did all the things dogs have done over the millennia to get in tight with the boss. Notwithstanding, Jake was as good as dogs get, and Boris, in the habit of carrying on one-sided conversations with him, became only incrementally aware that the dog was answering.
On this particular occasion, Boris tossed Jake the heel of a hunk of moose salami on which he'd been gnawing. "Dos iz far eich," Boris said. "A klainer ondenk."
"Ir zeit zaier gut-hartsik," Jake responded.
"Es iz be'emes gornisht," Boris said.
A silence followed. Both chewed their salami. Boris
finally muttered, "Der hund ret. Ver volt dos geglaibt?"
"Ruft mich ziben a zaiger in der fri," Jake said, and closed his eyes.
In the days that followed, Jake's command of Yiddish changed his relationship with Boris, expectably. The dog could not only speak; he could sing "Rumania, Rumania," and he could tell a joke. Some dogs can tell a joke -- some dogs can't.
It wasn't long before Boris concluded that he'd discovered something more valuable than gold. He and the dog decided that they would head for civilization and capitalize on Jake's talent.
Months later, they hit New York and found their way to a tiny shared office in a shabby Midtown building where a booking agent named D. Isayevitch secured them a spot on the Hebrew Orpheum circuit, following a harlequinade entitled "Shapiro and Shapirette."
Their own act, Isayevitch had named "Boris and Maurice, the Golden Fools." This was a set piece with a Klondike motif. Jake, as Maurice, was dressed in a little suit of clothes and sat at a table, playing cards and wisecracking with Boris. The act failed to click. The suit of clothes detracted from the novelty of Jake as a talking dog, and audiences assumed he was either a man disguised as a dog or simply a very ugly man.
Boris was undistinguished as a straight man, and Jake's talent alone was insufficient to put the act over. His voice was raspy and did not carry well, and his material, developed with Boris's help and the advice of Isayevitch the booking agent, was second-rate.
But it was technology that hastened the demise of Boris and Maurice. Advances in the phonograph industry dealt a staggering blow to Yiddish vaudeville. People stayed away in droves, listening to "Cohen on the Telephone" in the privacy of their own homes.
Canceled in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Boris had to wire Isayevitch for the fare back to New York, and pawn Jake's suit for the price of a hot meal and a couple of nights in a Bowery flophouse.
"Der glaykhster veg iz ful mit shteyner," Jake said, and therewith abandoned speaking in the tongue of humans.
Eventually, Boris resumed his old trade of faking antiques, and lived modestly with Jake in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. They were a regular sight on fine Sunday afternoons in Prospect Park, the old sled dog and the middle-aged forger, making their weekly promenade with solemn dignity.
Jake, having chosen the life of a normal canine, steadfastly refused to utter a word. He padded along at Boris's side, permitted the children of Brooklyn to pet him and pull his ears, and even exchanged correct sniffs with ordinary dogs of the borough, none of whom were capable of appreciating what he was and what he had been.
At the last, Jake spoke -- remarkably, in English. Just before taking his final leave, Jake raised his head and said to his old companion of the trail, "If Isayevitch, that putz, hadn't dressed me up in the damned suit, we would have had a shot at the big time."
Copyright © 2001 by Daniel Pinkwater