On October 4, 2001, I find myself riding my bike from my apartment in the Village to the Lower East Side, land of my forebears, in search of a zipper.
I’ve been working all morning and want a break. The zipper on my relatively new knapsack is broken—sometimes it works just fine and sometimes it splits apart, each time in a slightly different spot, no matter how slowly and carefully I do it. It’s driving me nuts, but I like the knapsack, with its handsome dark gray reflective material. And though I am as sophisticated as any other Manhattanite, I am also my mother’s daughter, as she was her mother’s daughter, and I still carry a little piece of the shtetl somewhere deep inside; I can’t bear to throw things away that still have life in them, especially now. So I get out the Yellow Pages and make some calls. I learn a lot about zippers. I learn there are two kinds: coiled and molded, which I suppose I already knew but had never sorted into categories in my mind. I learn that the things you pull are called sliders. I find out that Feibush and Son on Allen Street is the place to go.
It’s another of those fake summer days. I ride my bike across Houston Street to the Bowery. That’s when the smell picks up, and I think that if I were smart I would go back home and shut the door behind me. But instead I pass the wonderful lighting stores on the Bowery, with all those hideous chrome lamps right alongside the gorgeous designer ones, and then turn onto Dclancey and then Allen Street, one of those vast and brutal Lower East Side thoroughfares where the proportions are out of whack, the buildings too low to border such a wide street. This is a funny thing to find fault with in a city where the buildings are usually too tall and the streets too narrow. Allen Street has always made me feel unprotected, and I wonder why on earth I am riding straight down its fat spine into the burning smell on a crazy, unnecessary errand. Last week the dentist three blocks from Ground Zero and this week Lower East Side zippers.
I am looking for number 27 Allen, and I keep riding south. The air burns my throat. I think I should be wearing a mask, but how can anyone really wear a mask?—after about a minute I always rip the thing off my face and usually break the elastic in the process. I keep riding south— I didn’t realize Allen Street was so long. I’m deep in Chinatown, or Chinatown has crept deep into the Lower East Side. For a minute I pick up the stink offish and it smells lovely—so fathomable, so run of the mill. I am momentarily grateful to the media and the politicians for their discreet vagueness about what exactly the rescue workers are finding mixed in with the smoldering rubble.
I finally reach the southern end of Allen Street. I had somehow expected Feibush and Sons Zippers to be a huge emporium with a wide sign, but it’s just a regular skinny storefront in the middle of the block. I lock up and go in. It’s the last vestige of Jewishness on the block. I wonder if there’s a Chinese zipper store; Chinese people probably have as many zippered garments as Jews. There’s a counter and behind it shelves and shelves filled with boxes of zippers. A color sampler on the wall is filled with scores of colors of zippers, gorgeous zippers, and bins on the floor are filled with discounted threads, and a glass display case with notions and scissors. My mother’s mother taught her to sew, and my mother taught me, and since I have no daughters I taught my sons young, before they noticed that sewing is still, even in this age of gender crossing and breakdown considered women’s work. There are many skills my mother did not teach me that I wish she had—how to be career minded and confident out in the world, but I am grateful she passed along her sewing secrets. I love entering this specialized world. I love the fact that it exists, that people other than me care about straight pins and pinking shears and dressmakers’ chalk.
What’s clear today is that this world I love, this world that connects me to my ancestor merchants and tailors, barely exists. It’s being eaten up on all sides. And it’s dying of old age. I’m trying to carry the torch, but who else would ever think to replace a knapsack zipper?
A young and quite handsome man behind the counter with eyes a beautiful clear aqua waits on me, and I think maybe I have been premature in my postmortem. I am more than happy to work with him, but he refers me to an older guy, not so handsome, and disappears into the glassed-in office on the side. When I look into the face of the older man, I notice that he has the same aqua eyes, and I realize that they must be Feibush and Son. Ah, I think, their ancestors must have been raped by the Cossacks just like my husband’s, which is how his family always explains the blue eyes. I tell him my zipper problem and he sadly shakes his head.
“How would you feel about navy blue?” he asks. My zipper is black. I screw up my face and give this some thought. I tell him I wouldn’t feel good at all. He looks at my zipper and tells me it isn’t very good quality. I protest. “But it’s a YKK,” I say, which I know to be a good brand. He is not impressed. He tells me that the knapsack companies special order what they need and they don’t always buy the best quality. We discuss the relative merits of coiled and molded. He tells me my zipper is an odd size and he could cut me one and crimp it at the end. Then he says, “I’ll have to charge you too much, and it’ll cause me aggravation and it’ll cause you aggravation when you try to sew it in. Get yourself a new knapsack.” The black guy with the Caribbean accent who also works in the store looks at my zipper, shakes his head and agrees.
I hate to go away empty-handed, especially now, when getting things accomplished goes such a long way toward maintaining the precious equilibrium I’ve managed to hang onto all through this month. But he’s Feibush the zipper man, the patriarch of zippers, and I feel I have to take his advice, feel I have to please him, even though it means he won’t do any business. Despite the evidence to the contrary, I pray that Feibush and Son will last, even though I’m the only customer and Allen Street is deserted and putrid-smelling and was no doubt barely hanging on before the 11th. I pray it will last long after whatever shops replace Chinatown when Chinatown disperses, whatever corner of the earth—Afghan refugees?—come along to repopulate and revitalize this immigrant land of smelly animal smells and squalid tenements with Lord knows how many crammed to a square foot of space; I’m sure I don’t want to know. That’s assuming the engine of immigration keeps churning and New York remains the place to start in the new world, though it’s seeming more and more like an old world now. Anyway, I hope that Feibush and Son is still there next time I need an odd zipper. I don’t want to shop for a zipper on the Internet.
I ride home. Like the husbands in the Grace Paley story disappointed by eggs, I am a woman disappointed by zippers. The smell is vicious, but at least I am riding away from its source in that heat. My cousin Basia, who’s actually back in her apartment in Battery Park City, told me on the phone that in her neighborhood the ground feels hot under her feet. She’s been married to my first cousin since 1975, and so I know her feet. They’re extremely short but wide feet, even shorter and wider than mine, Polish peasant feet, but unlike me she likes to wear dainty high heels and buys them at some special place she found in midtown that sells unusual sizes. I picture Basia’s stockinged feet resting on my mother’s highly polished walnut coffee table next to mine back in, say, 1978, in the living room on one of those boring days with relatives when the outside world seemed a million miles away.
A week or so later I find myself on 23rd Street, home to Space Saver Hardware and Sewing Machines, another of my very favorite stores. They have zippers hanging from nails on the wall and I find a black (molded) 30-inch one with a double slider for $3.98 and buy it. The next two evenings I sit close by the table lamp in the living room and work on the zipper, thrilled to have busy work, to take the world and narrow it and narrow it down smaller and smaller, tune out all conflict until there’s nothing but this seam with a double row of stitching that needed to be ripped. I think of all the effort I put into projects like this, and all the effort other people put in, and it all feels noble, this honest effort to make things work better or to create new things which, with luck and a good eye, will be beautiful. I think of my grandmother’s embroidered Shabbos tablecloth, and the fisherman’s- knit afghan my mother made me that sits at the edge of my bed year after year, or will if this endless Indian summer ever gives way to autumn. I think of artists trying to work out visual problems, and actor reading scripts over and over until they find something in themselves that truthful. I think of last week’s letter to the editor in which the writer said the people who died seemed to have lived lives not of quiet desperation but of quiet inspiration. (Of course it’s easy to talk—half the time when I’m in the middle of a sewing project I’m cursing the sewing machine or cursing the thread or the lousy light or the boys who always seem to be doing something highly repetitive like flying a paper airplane that they need me to watch.)
And what happens when you love a Feibush and Sons and lose it? B. Shackman novelties, the B. Altman department store? The knitting store that used to be around the corner where, this being the Village, the back room was always filled with a bunch of happily bitchy knitting guys? What if J&R Music World, a couple of blocks from Ground Zero, doesn’t make it? What if the little that’s left of Little Italy goes in one blow? You miss what’s gone, usually at random and unexpected moments. And when something is taken forcibly, even if it was something you never loved, you begin to love it after the fact and to mourn its loss.
You say Kaddish, and in the iambs of the Hebrew—yisgadal viyiskaddash—is coded all the grief of all your ancestors. When I was a little girl, I would always wait for the moment in the Friday night service at Temple Beth-El when random people would stand up. It was a little like “To Tell the Truth,” the momentary shuffling before you realized who was actually going to stand, get up from the pale green plushy seats that were so satisfying to run your hands over, put a finger in their blue prayer books to hold their place. It seems to me it was usually mothers in their Friday night face powder and their Friday beauty-parlor hairdos still fresh and fluffy, and their good knits, which no doubt they’d asked their husbands to zip up the back for them, and each one was mourning the loss of a loved one.
Michele Herman is a New York-based nonfiction and fiction writer.