Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Bus and a Gay Jew

They were on the bus when we got on at 24th and Castro in Noe Valley. But I didn't want to associate the Castro or Noe Valley with these women. So I thought of choosing the name of the street toward the end of the bus ride: the Divisadero Ladies Society. But they weren't ladies. (No, they weren't men in drag, either.) So I settled on the name, the "Sisterhood of the Traveling Bus."

I'm about to describe the one unsavory experience that Mark and I had during our recent trip to San Francisco. There were a lot of people on the bus when we boarded, and - a first - a transit cop was on board. When we stepped on, he motioned for us to wave our pass card in front of the beeper, then turned aside. We had a paper pass, which I made an effort to extract, but he was by then engaged in other matters, clearly not interested in whether we "beeped" or not.

We moved to the back of the bus and sat down. It wasn't long before we realized our mistake, for we were sitting in the midst of a half-dozen or so African-American women - some, like the one in front of us, quite large. Now, ordinarily I wouldn't have thought that a problem at all. But these women immediately started exchanging some of the most vulgar and unbelievably coarse comments I've ever heard (and I don't use the word "vulgar" lightly). 

As soon as the bus moved away from the stop, the conversation - which was very loud - turned to male genitalia ...

Meanwhile, I had gotten out the paperback book I've been reading entitled, An Underground Life, Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin, by Gad Beck. I'm not sure now how I was led to this book. Considering the subject matter, it is fairly light in tone. I am sure this is due to the nature of the man Gad Beck was. In his memoirs, he writes about how he accepted his homosexuality at a young age as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And despite the time - the 30's - and the environment - Nazi Berlin - he appears to have been pretty open about his sexuality and fairly, shall we say, randy.

Gad Beck (right) and his first love, Manfred Lewin, who perished in a death camp.

But I wonder how many people - heterosexual or homosexual - would have had the courage to do what he did when he was only 18 year old in a detention center on Rosenstrasse in Berlin. He and his father had been rounded up in late winter/early spring of 1943. (Goebbels initiated his Factory Operation to rid Berlin of the last of the Jews as a birthday present to Hitler.) Beck quickly found a young man with whom he was simpatico. But then the boy's father pulled some strings and got himself and his son out. Beck then writes:
"After my young friend and his father had been released, I looked around for someone else I liked. My eye caught a really tall guy! I always managed to get close to him at night. When the lights were turned off, easily, effortlessly, we slid closer together. With so many people in one room the nights were anything but quiet anyway ... I refined my method of making love when there are other people sleeping in the same room. No one should notice, but satisfaction should be possible nevertheless. Affection, gentleness and letting go are the key words ..."
Beck's first love had been Manfred Lewin. He had been taken one day, along with Manfred's parents. Beck writes of an extraordinary scene when he learned what had happened. Manfred's two brothers, Schlomo and Rudi, having been at work during the round up were at the Lewin home and greeted Gad. They told him they planned to voluntarily join their parents in the morning. Beck wrote:
"The atmosphere within the Lewins' four empty walls was strangely mixed. I was in absolute despair, almost panic-stricken ... It was one of many goodbyes, and for me it was without a doubt the hardest of all ... I screamed and cried, and they couldn't calm me down. I hardly even registered that they were there until Schlomo took me in his arms to comfort me. He started to cry, too. What happened then was not all that surprising; we made love ... [H]e was facing an uncertain fate, and this was perhaps his last chance to experience closeness, unguarded and without danger. For me it was like a farewell from Manfred, a goodbye I never had the chance to say ... The graveness of the moment aroused a desperate passion in Schlomo and me."
Extraordinary. Powerful. Moving. And it involves two men.

I had read the above passages before getting on that bus in San Francisco. What I was trying to read while we were graced with the company of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Bus, came a few pages later, as their coarse comments about oral sex and ensuing laughter continued. Once we were actually down in the Castro and approaching Market Street, the subject shifted to gay men, or "little muscle boys" as one woman said. But their other comments were far, far worse, some of which involved "midgets." At length, the transit cop (who was also African American) turned to them and said, "Man, you ladies are vulgar!" (as in VULL-ger). They laughed even harder. Somewhat poignantly, one of the women said, "What do you expect? We don't have a life."

Meanwhile, my eyes bored into my book. The contrast between what I was reading and what I was hearing could not have been more surreal. 

Some time after he lost Manfred, Gad formed a relationship with another Jew in hiding, Zwi Abrahamssohn, pictured left. He too, was eventually rounded up, handed over by Jewish snatchers and tortured for information. Beck explains:
"When Zwi got arrested, I nearly lost my mind ... Little by little the noose was tightening around our necks. We had to find new hideouts, new ways to get food ... Berlin was getting increasingly dangerous for all of us, since the Gestapo was installing more and more Jewish snatchers. [Having read Harry Potter 7, I wondered if this is where J.K. Rowling got the inspiration for the snatchers in her novel.] One of the most notorious was ... Stella Goldschlag ... [who was] blackmailed [by the Gestapo] into working for them by threatening to send her parents ... to a concentration camp ... Stella quickly became a merciless perpetrator ... as she hunted down illegals and had them arrested, usually accompanied by her fellow snatcher Rolf Isaaksohn."
By then, we had crossed Market, gone over the hill and had veered onto Divisadero. I kept hoping that the women would get off the bus. They didn't. I kept hoping they would, frankly, shut up. They didn't. I kept wondering if we should get off and walk. We didn't. I didn't personally dislike those women. I did, however, strongly dislike hearing what they were saying. It wasn't a matter of "disapproval" in any way remotely relating to religion or "morality," though I have to admit that did briefly arise like bile. I felt sorry for them. I felt sorry that they, by their own admission, didn't "have a life." And I felt sorry that everyone else on the bus had to listen to them.

What made that experience more bearable for me was what I was reading. Despite the degrading atmosphere of that bus and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Bus, I felt inspired. I thought of how Gad and his groups of friends, despite the degrading and degraded world in which they lived, found love, courage and hope. They, in spite of everything, "had a life."

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