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The Beaming Ghetto

Translated from the German by Elena Mancini

Prestonville, a place forgotten by God and people, on Tuesday
Humility is like a rock that you yourself chain to your foot.
I look out the window, calmly and resolutely.
The window is small. The frame has kept
its loud color. I look out to the dumpsters
where the neighborhood’s garbage
is simmering.
Working class garbage, without elègance et rafinesse. Because everybody
knows that garbage is like a business card.
Our window breathes the fumes of the gray, sticky garbage. Even the sanitation workers
are too disgusted by it to carry it away. Oooh. Ehew, Yuck. What I would give to
be able to write poetry. To shroud with an aura
the slimy
toilet that was given to us by social services. To glorify the neighbor’s
grunts, the stains on the ceiling, the latrine, where we eat
breakfast and dinner.
And, oh, the Sunday dinner, that I have, forgotten
long ago.
Our window breathes in rotten garbage. The neighbors’
bed sheets and the laundry on the clothesline are
our sunrise. How they blow in the slimy neighborhood
air. They too have to live. They too. They too. Us
too. But, by God, us too. If there were room there, then God,
you could see us from our window sometimes.
No, I can’t write any poetry, nor can I believe in eternal
kindness. I can’t believe in general. No, this business is
not about me at all. Believe, for what? Trust. We
suck on the lollipops that our neighbors sell at a stand in front of the lot. At least they
still earn something. By God, a few pennies for them at least.

Man with papers and paper decorations in doorway under sign “Papirwaren, C. Schambedal” (papershop) in Jewish ghetto, Vilna, Russia. (1922). Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

With this life, with this rise in prices. Lollipops, pumpkin seeds, lice. Lollipops you trust. Even if in the
end all that remains is the stick. And you can’t even use it to pick your teeth.
At best you can throw it between somebody’s
legs, when you tell them to go to
hell. And it’s not even a cudgel.
I was always impressed by ideals. By other’s ideals. As
for me, I’ve always lived in dark little rooms, with tiny, hidden windows.
Our kids trample on each others toes twice a day. In the morning when
we bring them around. And in the evenings, when we bring them back. Weekend,
haha. I had almost forgotten. And the blows. Amongst themselves. From us to them. Our nerves to pieces. Crash. Bang. And the faucet and the
drops from the ceiling, plip, plip. The neighbor should have gotten
a provisional tub by now. And it would be a
pity if we didn’t enjoy this spring.
And our geriatric youth and how it flows out of the limbs
of time that we have before us. We are optimistic.
We live on the first floor. Therefore we have no
balcony. We don’t have any razors in the house because
of the kids. But with a little good will we could
manage all types of things.
A mosquito got caught between the
window panes. It rushes toward the window
and makes noise. The devil should grab hold of it. Because it
fed on our blood the whole night through.
The blood we donated. Our dear, precious blood, rewarded with a lunch in a
corner pub, a miserable inn with diluted wine and the one
day off. Oh, what precious blood we have for the millions of
mosquitoes. The water is in the cellar. And simmers the foul smelling
broth that the rats romp into, and then happily
slip into the garbage. And then back to the cellar and to the
garbage. They should drown in their luck. Because they
and the big white cat are
the only ones who have it good. Here. I always ask myself why he
got so bloated. Is it obesity, maybe? City life and
civilization? Could be. Maybe it’s a hormonal disorder. You think? The rats,
what a lunch. And what a dinner. A supper.
A supper, like the English do. Like the
diplomatic corps, the official guests. When it’s very late.
But the cat has friends and neighbors. And he lets
them have their way with the rats too. Because there’s enough garbage
in front of our window. No need to wait on line. No swearing here.
There’s a bone waiting for everybody. And all the waste you want.
Quite a few take advantage of this, to be sure.
Every morning at seven the man with the leather jacket comes by
pulling a cart behind him. He collects
bottles and preserve jars. Bottles and glass for a penny
or two. When you think of what one can buy or sell for
a penny or even two. I throw away my empty glass. So do the neighbors.
Who has room to save jars in a five by five hole. So we contribute to the man
with the leather jacket’s prosperity. I don’t have a leather jacket.
Not even a coat. If only this damn weather would change. To hell with it. Because self-
gratification is everything. It can keep you warm.
Around nine a woman in green appears. A coat and a fur hat.
She collects plastic bags. Another penny.
That’s how it is. Especially when you can’t get any at the
market place. I walk around with my head uncovered. I tell myself that this
suits me better. Our kids are hardened. Still we have to protect
them from the cold. We want to protect them from everything. They are tomorrow’s generation.
We’ re today’s generation. Even we were once tomorrow’s generation. We are going
to be yesterday’s. We have to protect. At any cost. The generation of
The woman picks up the bread remains. The pieces bitten off
by people, by rats. She has rabbits, or
chickens, doesn’t she? She gave her count.
But who knows. Because it’s strictly forbidden to keep unauthorized
two-legged and let alone four-legged creatures.
Nevertheless: the mosquitoes, the kitchen roaches, and the bugs.
Night after night I stand behind the door in waiting. I
wait for the legions of bugs, that will come into the—
what do you call it—the apartment.
In the stairwell, it stinks like chicken shit and like
rotgut. Now and then like burnt fat. And on Sunday
it stinks marvelously. Like roast. But when you
look out of the window and see the rats, oh, ew,
The woman collects everything that we thoughtlessly
throw away everyday of our lives. Everyday we separate ourselves
from something, so we can breathe. We renounce to things with difficulty.
Look at that thing over there. Such a soulless thing over there. We throw
things away that we’ve schlepped with us from
house to house. From sublet to sublet. This time
we have an apartment. We have a roof over our
heads. And it’s ours. In the next month when
our children will be a little bit older, we’ll even throw
the television set out the window. “For fun.” Just like that.
For fun. That’s no fun. It’s a luxury.
As if luxury were a priority for us right now.
The woman collects rags and all sorts of odd
things. With certain things she hesitates. Should she, should she not? Who knows,
if these things will ever be useful. My hands are swollen from
the soda. And my fingernails have broken. I am
a lady. From time to time I become filled with rage and then
I throw it onto the heap of dung. The lady collects rags.
Should she, shouldn’t she? Who knows if they’ll ever be useful. She
has a green coat. A fur coat. And in the morning
between nine and ten she’s free. She can rummage
through the garbage. And steal the bread from the rats. What
a beautiful depiction of nature.
Every day I’m surprised by how much
cold and humidity can be stored in one room. How such a
small room could host so much cold and
The ceiling dries up from time to time. And pieces of it fall into
our food. We open the closet with moderation. We
inhale with moderation. And do everything in moderation. Maybe
once a month. Prophylactically. So that the walls
won’t peel off so much. It’s hard to keep the kids
under control though.
They live in a free land. In bunk beds.
Fortunately, a spring like hope
floats over everything.
And the future is ours.
The garbage is a continuous surprise. Undergoing permanent
change. And completion. Around noon
another woman comes around with a gold ring. She
is also well dressed. Just a little bit older. This garbage is a
continuous surprise. Today she opens up the latest loot in front
of her grandchildren. A stocking. A button.
A toy. A cup. Material goods. How wasteful
people are. She thinks to herself.
How much waste. How they squander their money.
And how they squander their lives. But we have to
breathe. From time to time we have to free the space in our
room from things. We fill it with air.
Eventually, eventually we will live better and
We smoke moderately. We’re not successful at sacrificing
enough for tomorrow’s generation. Their lungs
are like a sponge, fully engorged with kitchen fumes,
laundry steam, choice mildew odors and mustiness,
smoke and soothing fragrances.
Yet, a spring-like hope, floats above all of this.
Unfortunately, we won’t be able to open the window. The
garbage is only two steps in away from it. Its stench
penetrates our ears. What an evening dance it will
be among all the waste. And what a day dance.
Because nobody is ashamed of wading through the garbage.
In it there’s a bone for everyone. At once, I am filled with pride
and with shame. How we contribute to the world’s prosperity. How we
contribute to the preservation of the species. How
responsible we are for the smooth running of
things. Because nothing is lost to nature. And everything, yes, everything
goes from one form of nature into another. Until it
comes back to us in God knows what kind of
mysterious ways.
We sit here as if in a ghetto. Where emigrants come
and go. From time to time there are lucky ones who leave.
From time to time the ones who have luck leave. There are
from time to time those who really have luck
and leave.
An unusual stir of emotion overcomes me in sudden
spurts. I see a truck loaded with
furniture. A white refrigerator. A white gas
stove. Everything contributes to the bright future
I have before my eyes. For the others. A better life.
A broader one. A roomier one. A lighter one. One that
is less damp and cold.
And a strange sadness takes hold of me. And after a
very short time the worries come back. Gray and
menacing. With white refrigerators. With white gas stoves.
And I bite into my hand. So that I won’t scream.
How deceptive life is. How it’s stuffed with the white
of our hopes.
Our cleaning lady. Because we also have a cleaning lady. She
drudges picking up what the wind
has blown over the allies. The garbage spills out of the dumpster. In
its high-spirited indifference, the wind lays impatiens with scraps of
paper and waste to the ground. The woman picks them
up again. She tortures herself the whole day long
to keep up appearances. Because she too lives in the ghetto.
And she has an extraordinary sense for order.
Pieces of laundry hang in the tree branches.
The wind, in its high-spiritedness, blew them off
the line.
The line that dries our clothes. And spares us from the
entanglement of cords in the house.
Oh, how beautiful our perseverance and our bohemian
coherence. This is the time to have children.
The people make our heads explode with their talk.
But we shrug our shoulders and smile haughtily. Times
are changing. The fruits will remain. And they’ll be those
who will try to avenge themselves however they can. And sometimes
somebody will rebel. Often these battles are won with the weapons
of the enemy.
To live in the ghetto. That is surely no reason to smack one’s lips
while eating. Not to pick up one’s feet while walking. Or
to have children who behave badly. Mondays we speak
German. Tuesdays French. And so on. Thursdays are reserved
for the acquisition of logic. Even though
reason is often a state of mind. Nevertheless Thursdays are
reserved for logic. So that our children grow up with harmony and diversity in their lives. Friday is the day of
rest. For the words. For the walls. That suffocate under
the tones that survive in the crevices
day after day. We take care not to build
a new Babylon. At night, I
strain myself to study ancient Greek and Chinese. Our children
must benefit from a humanistic education.
Humanism, there’s a concept that brings
honor to anyone today.
My husband makes us ill with his experiments
with his chemistry kit. The children have to have some concept
of the phenomena that take place in nature
and society. We infect the room with
sulfuric fumes and acids. And all types of flammable
substances. Through continued experiments
we scald the neighbors’s cat and make our dog bald.
And all of this so that our children can experience
what types of phenomena take place in society.
So that they grow up with expectations that are not too
unreasonable. So that they realize what their rights and duties are.
We want to have responsible children who look at life and
its events straight in the eye. As well as the unpredictable.
That’s why we play Mozart records for them and they play it back to us
on a piano with standard-size keys that are drawn on a wooden board.
A piano, since a grand piano would have been
too large for our modern apartment. This is in accordance
with the lessons in logic. They conscientiously strike the marked
keys as the records play. I sit next to them
with the knitting needle and follow the
beat. And tap out the tempo for them. When they miss the notes
I tap them on their fingers. Living in the ghetto is
no excuse to master an instrument only in part.

Translator Elena Mancini is a native and resident of NYC. She is the Culture Editor at Logos: A Journal for Modern Society and Culture ( Elena translates fiction and social criticism from German into English.


Carmen Francesca Banciu

Banciu is the author of seven books (three novels and four collections of short stories).


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2005

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