The Half-Life of Nat Glickstein
When he was in his mid-forties, my father worked briefly in the Returns department at
Macy’s. It wasn’t the most serious hiring mistake ever made—there was Spiro Agnew, for
starters. But in its own way, it was a beaut. For Macy’s, that is. For Nat Glickstein, the
Scourge of Herald Square, it was a dream job. Installed in his third-floor redoubt between
Ladies’ Coats and Lingerie, he was all that stood between civilization and the swarm of
thieving customers battering at its walls. My father would listen impassively as they spun
their tall tales of mysteriously damaged merchandise and conveniently lost receipts, and
then he would inform them that where he came from, there was a name for them (goniffs),
and they should be grateful that he was going to let them turn around and walk right out
of the store without calling security.
Up to a certain point, I suppose it might have been in Macy’s best interest to have a
paranoid lunatic working in Returns, but my father passed that point by lunchtime on his
first day. It took Macy’s another month to realize what they were dealing with. They fired
my father the Friday before Christmas. He of course blamed it on anti-Semitism, notwithstanding
that at the time, Macy’s was owned by a Jew, and half of its employees were Jews. (“What, you think they’re not smart enough to cover their tracks?” my father
said, when someone brought up that inconvenient fact.) When he got home that night,
he ripped the flap off a large corrugated box, punched two holes in one end, threaded a
piece of twine through the holes to serve as a neckstrap and, with a black crayon swiped
from my prized 64-piece Crayola set, printed on the smooth side of the cardboard:
“Macy’s Final Solution: Fire all the Jews.” Except that he ran out of room on the righthand
margin, so what the poster board actually said was:
The next morning, my father woke me up at seven. “Get up and get dressed, Seth,”
he said. “It’s about time you learned something about how the world works.” I was only
ten, but I was already pretty sure that my father wasn’t the most reliable source on that
subject. But from his tone of voice, I knew this was a command performance.
We arrived at Macy’s a few minutes before nine. It was about twenty degrees out,
with an unpleasant cold, damp wind. A huge crowd of last-minute Christmas shoppers
was gathered in front of the main entrance on Broadway, waiting for the store to open.
My father positioned himself by the entrance, slipped the poster board over his head,
pulled down the earflaps on his cap, and glared at the crowd, just daring them to be rude
enough to stare at the sign he had dragged all the way down from Washington Heights so
they could stare at it. I staked out a position against the wall as far from him as I thought
I could get away with.
After a couple of minutes, a woman on the edge of the crowd walked over to get a
better look. Stumped, she motioned to her friend to come over. Pointing to the mangled
“Jews,” she said to her friend, “I can’t read this, can you?” as if my father weren’t standing
there, or were deaf, or too stupid to know what was written on his own sign. “Jeans? Fire
all the jeans? That doesn’t make any sense.”
That was all my father needed. “What’s the matter with you, you don’t know how to
read? It says ‘Jews.’ Ever heard of them? You know, the ones you won’t let into your fancy
schools and country clubs.” Nine a.m. and his day was made.
At that moment, mercifully, the doors opened and the crowd pushed in. But for me, it
was just a temporary reprieve. All day a steady stream of new victims showed up, lured
over to my father by the not-quite-readable sign and then snared in his trap. It was, in its
way, a brilliant piece of street theater, a running one-line gag, like Woody Allen’s famous
hold-up note in Take the Money and Run. It took me another twenty years to appreciate
After two hours, my father signaled for me to come over. I pushed off the wall and
walked towards him nonchalantly, with a quizzical look on my face meant to communicate
to the world that I had no more clue than any of the rest of them who this madman
was or what he could possibly want from me. “I have to use the toilet,” he said, lifting the
poster board over his head. “You take over until I get back.”
Terror can give you courage you didn’t know you had. I looked him in the eye and
shook my head. My father must have been stunned—it was my first (and last) act of open
defiance. He threw the board down in disgust and walked into Macy’s (yes, Macy’s)
to use their facilities. When he returned, I had resumed my place against the wall, but
several feet farther away, instinctively sensing that my moment of courage had won me
a little more freedom.
By four, Macy’s had had enough and called in the police. Two officers showed up,
expecting to find a true lunatic, Bellevue material. Instead they found my father: a sad-looking,
reasonably well-dressed man in his forties who, after being hauled down to the
station and put through the paces, not only knew the year, the month, and the day of
the week, but could also recite the US presidents backward and forward and list the
noteworthy acts of anti-Semitism committed by each of them. Except, of course, Franklin
Roosevelt, the sentimental favorite. The police released him back into the wild, with a
warning not to go within five hundred yards of Macy’s.
That night my father pounded out a letter to the editors of the New York Times
denouncing the management of Macy’s as a bunch of anti-Semites, which of course he
knew the Times editors would never publish, self-loathing Jews that they were. And so my
father’s brief career as a political activist came to an end.
After that, he got a job as a vacuum salesman, which he was fired from after one
week (a complaint from a customer, we never heard the details). Then he got a job as a
counterman at a deli. He lasted one day (don’t ask). He was out of work for months after
that, moping around the house, until Aunt Ethel came to the rescue.
Aunt Ethel was my mother’s older sister, and one of the few success stories in my family.
When she was a girl, she began collecting dolls. By her early twenties, she was running
a profitable mail-order business out of my grandparents’ apartment, importing dolls
from around the world and reselling them to collectors. By the time I came along, Aunt
Ethel was rich enough to have made it across the Hudson, that great River of Rivers that
divided the Jews who made it from the Jews who didn’t, settling in the wilds of Teaneck,
New Jersey. She never married, and lived a life of almost unimaginable freedom, or so
it seemed to me. She went where she wanted, had friends in exotic-sounding places like
Montevideo and Marrakesh, and spoke three languages, not counting the Yiddish she’d
left behind in Washington Heights.
I adored Aunt Ethel, and looked forward to her visits the way a drowning man looks
forward to air. On one visit, I remember, Aunt Ethel said to me, “When you get a little
older, Seth, maybe you’d like to come to South America with me.” I looked at her hard—a
desperate look meant to convey, on the one hand, that I would like that more than life
itself, and on the other, that if she was just toying with me, it was the cruelest thing that
woman had ever done to man.
Over the years, I concocted an elaborate fantasy that, I’m afraid, reveals the obvious
influence of my reading habits at the time, in which Aunt Ethel, after witnessing my father
yell at me about some insignificant infraction, would say, “That’s it. It’ll break my heart if
I have to watch you treat this boy as if he were a common grocer’s child one day longer.
All this boy needs is some love.” And with that, she would grab my arm and announce
to my astonished parents, in classic Dickensian eccentric savior-aunt fashion, “Seth is
coming to live with me.” And out the door we would march, Aunt Ethel and I, headed
for her palace across the Hudson, as my parents watched, helpless and ashamed, realizing
too late what they had lost.
In the event, I had to make do with Aunt Ethel’s irregular visits to our apartment. My
father refused to visit her in New Jersey (“She wants to see us, she can come here”), and
she rarely made it to ceremonial family gatherings. But whenever some business brought
her to Manhattan, she’d try to make the long trek up to Washington Heights to see my
mother and me.
After my father had been out of work for about six months, Aunt Ethel came by one
Saturday afternoon. My father (not coincidentally) was out, and while my mother made
coffee, I sat down at the kitchen table with Aunt Ethel. Every visit from Aunt Ethel started
the same way. I’d sit there shyly, and finally she would say, “So tell me every little thing
that is new and exciting in Seth Glickstein’s life.” I always rehearsed my answers ahead
of time, trying to cobble together from the unpromising raw material of my life a portrait
of someone Aunt Ethel might actually want to take with her to South America one day.
But when my big moment came, I usually lost my nerve.
On that particular Saturday, I remember, Aunt Ethel asked me if there was a girl I
liked at school. “Not really,” I said, lying, and then added, in my most grown-up voice,
“I don’t have time for girls. I’m studying too hard.” I waited for her to ask what I was
studying, so I could give her the answer I had rehearsed—something about the English
monarchy and Shakespeare—an answer that, in my thirteen-year-old view, was definitely
worthy of someone you’d want to take to South America, although only dimly related to
what this particular thirteen-year-old was doing with his days. But my plan was derailed
by my mother’s arrival at the table with coffee, along with a plate of cookies from the
fancy German-Jewish bakery in the neighborhood that she frequented only when Aunt
Ethel was coming to visit.
My mother sat down at the table.
“So,” said my mother.
“So,” said Aunt Ethel.
I knew that was my cue to leave, but I didn’t want to leave. I sat there and picked the
colored sprinkles off my cookie, one by one, making a tidy pile of them on the side of the
plate. Finally my mother said, “Seth, I want to talk to Aunt Ethel alone for a little while.
Why don’t you go read in your room?”
I left, but instead of the bedroom, I parked myself in the living room, where I was out
of sight but not earshot.
“There’s no point in getting Nat a job where he’s got to work with other people,” Aunt
Ethel said. “He’s just going to be fired.”
“I know,” my mother said.
“I’ll talk to Sollie,” Aunt Ethel said. “He must have something Nat can do.”
Sollie was the other successful member of my extended family—a cousin of my
mother’s and Ethel’s who ran a thriving business making those tasteless hard noodles
you used to find at every Chinese restaurant. The next week, Sollie came by and offered
my father a job as an assistant bookkeeper. “You be my eyes and ears,” Sollie said to him,
“but let me be the mouth.”
Whether through a stroke of luck or cunning on Sollie’s part, it turned out to be
the perfect job for my father. He was loyal, smart and hard-working, and over the years
rooted out more than one employee skimming money from the company. I doubt my
father ever knew that Aunt Ethel had had a hand in getting him the job; if he did, that
knowledge never compromised his pure dislike of her. But he knew that Sollie had saved
his life, and in his fashion, he was eternally grateful. He always kept a respectful distance
from Sollie at the office and on the rare family occasions at which we’d see Sollie and
his family. But Sollie was the only person my father ever genuinely loved—not counting
my mother, whom I don’t know whether to count or not. The day Sollie died, my father
retired from the company, with a pension that was more than enough for his modest
At some point, I realized that Aunt Ethel wasn’t going to rescue me, and I was just
going to have to rescue myself. I worked hard in high school, skipping two grades, and
got accepted at the University of Chicago at sixteen with a full scholarship. Two days
after I left for college, my mother packed up her clothes, loaded them into the back seat
of Aunt Ethel’s car, and drove off without a word. Well, not quite. On a piece of paper
propped against the salt shaker on the kitchen table, she wrote: “I’ve had enough.” She
must have been counting down the days since I was in diapers.
My father called me a week later to tell me she’d left. As soon as I picked up the phone,
I knew something was wrong. My father had a pretty limited vocal range: suspicious or in
a full-blown rage pretty much covered the waterfront. But there was something different
here, something closer to hysteria.
“What’s wrong, Dad?” I said.
“After twenty years, she says, ‘I’ve had enough.’ Nothing else. Just ‘I’ve had enough.’ Who would do a thing like that? No one, that’s who.”
“What are you talking about, Dad?”
“Your mother. I’m in the bathroom taking a piss, I hear the front door close, I come
out. Your mother’s gone. Just like that. Twenty years, and she’s gone.”
“Mom left you?”
“What do you think she did? That’s what I’m telling you. Out the door. And all she says is, ‘I’ve had enough.’”
“She said that to you?”
“No, she didn’t say it to me. She wrote it on a napkin and left it on the kitchen table. ‘I’ve had enough.’”
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
“What are you sorry about? Did you have something to do with this?”
“No, I’m just sorry it happened. That’s all. When did she leave?”
“Last week,” he said. “I didn’t call you then because I thought it was some kind of joke,
that she’d come back any minute. Some joke. Ha ha. You can probably hear me laughing
all the way in Chicago. This afternoon, I finally called your Aunt Ethel. I could never
stand that woman. She says to me, ‘You want to know where your wife is? She’s somewhere
where she’ll never have to take your abuse again.’ What’s that supposed to mean?”
I thought it was pretty obvious what it was supposed to mean. Still, it was hard not
to feel sorry for him. If someone has put up with you for twenty years without a word
of complaint, you’re bound to feel sandbagged when she suddenly comes to her senses
in year twenty-one.
“Well?” said my father, after a few seconds.
“I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, Dad.”
“Oh, so you’re on her side.”
“No, I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant that it seems pretty clear what Ethel meant
“OK, Mr. Smarty-Pants. So if you know everything, tell me where your mother is.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know she’d left until you told me just now.”
For a few seconds there was silence, and then muffled sounds that might have been
crying. Finally he said, “When you talk to your mother, you can tell her that if she wants
to come back, no one’s standing in her way.”
“I might put it a little differently, Dad.”
“You put it any way you want. She doesn’t want to come back, that’s her business.”
“You know, Dad,” I said, as gently as I could, “sometimes you’re not the easiest person
in the world to live with.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Is that what your mother says? Is that what she
meant by ‘I’ve had enough’?”
“I would guess she meant something like that.”
“So you are on her side.”
“No, Dad, I’m not on anyone’s side. I just want you both to be happy.” But I knew
he had no chance at happiness, none whatsoever. I don’t know why, he was just born with no
He hung up on me.
My mother called me a few days later from Aunt Ethel’s house in New Jersey. She
had just found an apartment about ten miles from Ethel, and was planning to move in
the following week.
“It was too much for any person,” she said.
“I know,” I said.
“Please don’t tell your father where I am.”
“OK,” I said.
“There’s an extra bedroom in my apartment, you stay with me any time you want.
But don’t cut your father off. He’s not a well man.”
“I know,” I said.
“He needs to talk to someone and there’s nobody but you now.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ll try.”
My father pretty much ruined my freshman year at college, which was an achievement
at a thousand miles’ distance. He called me ten, twelve times a week, day and night, the
local beat reporter hot on the trail of a breaking story.
“Hello, this is your father. I’ll tell you why she left. Because she’s a crazy woman.
Everything’s fine, and then one day she walks out the door when I’m in the bathroom
taking a piss, and never comes back. Who does that? Only a crazy woman.”
“Hello, this is your father. Next time you talk to your mother, you tell her that the
cemetery bill just came. Her mother can rot in the ground with weeds so thick they could
choke her, as far as I’m concerned.”
“If you send me the bill, Dad, I’ll make sure she gets it.”
“Some situation. I can’t mail a letter to my own wife. My son has to deliver it to her.
What is she afraid of? You tell me that.”
“I don’t know, Dad, I think she just needs to be left alone for a while.”
“A Jewish Greta Garbo. What do you know. I married a Jewish Greta Garbo. Well,
you tell Ms. Garbowsky that if she wants her clothes, she better come pick them up before
Thursday, because that’s when Goodwill is coming to take them away.”
“Hello, this is your father. Twenty years and she doesn’t have the common decency to
call me herself to tell me she wants a divorce. I have to hear it from her lawyer. What do
you think of that? And you can tell her from me that her lawyer’s a goniff. An office like
that, he’s robbing his clients blind.”
He was like the Energizer Bunny, running on pure bile. By spring, he finally showed
signs of slowing down. The phone calls became less frequent, more subdued. Sometimes
he’d call and then say nothing, waiting for me to fill the void with idle chatter. And then
he stopped calling altogether. After a couple of weeks, filled with all the obvious fears, I
“I was worried when I didn’t hear from you,” I said.
“Worried? What were you worried about?” he said.
“I don’t know, that something had happened to you.”
“What could happen to me? I get up, I read the paper, I eat, I take a piss, I go back
“Dad, you sound kind of depressed.”
“Is there some reason I should be dancing a jig? You tell me.”
“Dad,” I said, “there’s a lot of daylight between dancing a jig and sitting around all day
alone in your apartment moping. You could join the seniors’ group at the temple. They
have card games, outings, maybe you’d meet some new people.”
“The old people were bad enough. I’m done with people.”
My mother remarried two years after she left my father—a nebbishy sort of guy, but
sweet. I’d have gone for sweet too. After college, I got married myself and settled permanently
in Chicago. My wife’s family lived outside of Chicago, in Skokie. When I first met
them, I felt like I was on a field trip to Mars. It was my first genuine, up-close experience
with a normal family. Every time we went to visit, my father-in-law would open the door,
give me a bear hug and say, “How’s my favorite son-in-law?” We didn’t have much in
common, beyond a taste for common courtesy and the simple niceties of life. But it turns
out that’s enough—more than enough.
My father came to visit us once in Chicago, after much importuning from my wife
and me, when our boys were still toddlers. He wouldn’t leave the house, and when my
wife’s family finally gave up trying to get him over to their house and came over to ours
instead, he said he felt sick and stayed in his room all night. I guess it felt like Mars to
him too, only not in a good way.
I tried to get east at least a couple of times a year to see him. I’d bring dinner over
to his apartment, and we’d struggle to make conversation for an hour or two. He never
asked about my kids or my wife, and rarely more than a few perfunctory things about
me. The only thing he wanted to talk about he wouldn’t bring up. Once he asked me if
my mother ever asked about him. After a few seconds’ hesitation, I said no, which was
the truth. Looking at his face, I wished I hadn’t. A couple of times, I had tried bringing
him up with my mother. The first time she didn’t say anything. The second time, she said,
“Seth, he’s your father. But I’m done with all that.”
Over the years, I had thought about bringing the whole family to New York to see him,
but he so clearly didn’t want to be seen that I didn’t have the heart to do it to him or to
them. But when my father turned eighty, I insisted over his protestations that we would
all come east to celebrate his birthday. “The boys want to get to know you,” I said, not
foolish enough to suggest that he might want to get to know them too.
I made reservations for all of us at a restaurant near his apartment—a quiet place, not
too fancy, so he wouldn’t feel too much out of his element. But by then, his element was
reduced to the four walls of his apartment, plus the half-block walk to the bodega that
had replaced the old Jewish butcher shop as the neighborhood slowly changed out from
under him. It was all too much. He sat in the corner, looking like a trapped animal, while
my sons futilely tried to engage him in conversation. When the waiter brought out the
cake I had ordered and we all sang “Happy Birthday,” he seemed utterly lost—another
outing to Mars.
As I helped him on with his coat, my father said to me, “They’re good boys.” I looked
at him, stunned. “Thanks, Dad,” I said, trying to keep my voice casual, trying not to scare
him off. But that was all there was. He turned and walked outside, a shadow swallowed
in the shadows of a late November night.
My father died last year, at 91. My wife and I had a small ceremony at the Jewish
funeral home near his apartment—just the two of us, plus the rabbi the funeral home
keeps on retainer for lapsed Jews like us who feel compelled at such moments to pay
homage to history. I invited my mother to join us. I’m not exactly sure why—maybe
misplaced sentimentality on my part, maybe a thought that she would welcome closure.
She said no. “I don’t belong there, Seth. Even your father has a right to be mourned.”
My wife offered to stay on to help me close up my father’s apartment, but I said no,
I wanted to do it alone. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe to force myself to face the past
before the last visible traces of it vanished. The apartment looked pretty much unchanged
from the day my mother left—a time capsule no one would want to open. One quick trip
through was enough to confirm there was nothing here worth saving. I started in the
kitchen and, over the next two days, methodically worked my way through the apartment,
boxing and bagging everything to haul out to the trash. I left the bedroom for last.
When I opened the door to what used to be my mother’s closet, I was stunned to discover
her clothes still hanging there. My mother had left half a century ago. Was my father hoping
all this time? Or was there just never a day when he could face throwing them out?
I cleaned out the closets and dresser drawers, and then turned my attention to the
night table by his bed. In the top drawer, there was a small pharmacy, a pair of reading
glasses, and an ancient paperback copy of Harry Golden’s Only in America, price 25 cents.
I set aside the book and threw out everything else.
In the bottom drawer I found my parents’ wedding photograph and a pad of lined
yellow paper. On the top sheet was a handwritten note, dated about a month before my
I’m an old man. I can’t walk more than a block. The doctors tell
me my heart is no good. I don’t say this for your pity. I just want you
to know, in case for some reason you want to see me again before I’m
I didn’t go to Seth’s wedding because I couldn’t bear to see you. Or
the bris. Or Seth’s boys’ graduations. But I’m over all of that. Seth tells
me you had a good life. I’m happy for you.
If there’s anything in the apartment you want, Seth can save it for
you. Your clothes are still in the closet, but I don’t suppose you’d want
them anymore. Also the picture Sollie took of us on our wedding day.
The only other thing I wanted to say is I know why you left. I saw
it happening, everything turning to shit, and I couldn’t stop myself. But
Seth turned into a fine young man, so that’s one good thing at least.
I ripped the top sheet off the pad, folded it carefully in thirds, and tucked it into the
pages of Only in America for safekeeping. I would keep the photograph, but the letter, I
decided, should be delivered to its intended recipient. There is a statute of limitations