How I Picked My First Communist In America

I was notorious for being the worst mushroom picker of our summer dacha settlement. I couldn’t find them when alone and had to join a group that followed an expert deep into the woods. “Here,” he’d jab his knife into the ground, signaling the beginning of the hunt, though the place wouldn’t be different from the one we’d just walked through. We searched for the prized porcini mushrooms, which in Russian are called belye. All the other kinds were proles to the king of the forest undergrowth.

If I was lucky enough to spot a brown cap peeking from under the fallen leaf, I’d cut it from its root and clutch the mushroom in my fist. For the rest of the expedition, I’d keep checking my treasure, delighting in its texture, its raw smell, and, most of all, its size—especially when it was too wide to link my thumb and fingers around it. A winner.

Though I am definitely myopic, I’m not naïve. I’ve met Communists in America before today. But not the real ones. My own grandfather used to be a Communist. He had been admitted into the country legally: a special case made for those WWII veterans who’d been coerced to become members before battles. An infantry man, he’d gone from Belarus all the way to Berlin fighting the Nazis. And after the war, it was more dangerous to request to be dismissed from the party than to continue paying his dues and nod at the meetings. He was a survivor, my grandpa, but no—he wasn’t a real Communist. In mushroomese he’d be russula, run-of-the-mill. Though their colorful caps, from green to deep purple and anything in-between, do brighten the forest floor, the real mushroom hunters don’t consider them worthy of leaning down to pick.

 

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Consider this: if you see a movie audience simultaneously weeping and laughing while watching a group of skeletons breaking out of Auschwitz—you’re, probably, at a Jewish film festival. We Jews love gallows humor. For a change, the second movie of the day is about peacetime. The music during the opening credits is perky, an anecdote without words. I relax in my seat and grab a fistful of popcorn from the bag. The movie will be a breather between the heavy dying and suffering of the first and the next one on the program.

The film begins. A bunch of New-York garment workers, all Russian Jews (from their looks, they all could be my distant relatives) had escaped pogroms and discrimination to come to America in the beginning of the last century. In the ‘20s, spurred by the crowding of the Lower East Side tenements and enabled by the new subway line to outer boroughs, they cooperated in building a city upon a hill, their Eden in the Bronx. Then, they became fruitful and multiplied.

Black-and-white documentary film, streaked and spotted with age, shows clean, well-dressed children playing nicely in the courtyards landscaped with manicured precision, tended by the coop owners themselves. On the screen, roomful of combed and suited men, women dressed in lace-collared blouses devour books in the 20,000 volume basement library next door to the kindergarten. A teacher writes Yiddish lessons on the blackboard, occasionally turning to question her tiny, focused students, the room—a hothouse of raised shoots of hands. Neighbors helping new people move in. Neighbors celebrating together. The model of civil society, of order, knowledge, and love. Manual workers living a high-brow cultured life.

They are shown celebrating International Workers Day. For those who don’t know—it’s May 1st. Though I’m surprised to discover someone who did celebrate that day in America, I dismiss my apprehension: why shouldn’t the authentic workers celebrate Workers’ Day.

But once the tiny knot in my stomach has formed, it doesn’t let go as I keep watching the documentary, the old footage spliced with contemporary interviews. Now, the sprightly senior-citizens—grown from the well-behaved children on the playground and the classroom—recollect their golden days at the Bronx co-op. They still have the air of self-control and focused energy around them. If placed in a classroom, I imagine, they’d raise their hands to answer every question. They swallow their “r”s the way New-Yorkers do. Their eyes look straight at the audience.

“Sure,” one of them says. “I was a Communist then.” He looks handsome in the way I particularly like in a man. Chiseled face, determined nose, narrow lips. There is even enough hair left on his head in all the right places, so he doesn’t look like the aging bald eagles his friends have become. He smiles into the camera, showing his beautiful teeth, delighting in his memories. He is probably not a commie anymore. “Sure, most of us were. I had wanted to go to college, but our co-op president convinced me otherwise—much organizing was needed around the country. I was sent to Detroit to work at GM, to help with the union.” Then, sometime after his work to enlighten the masses and improve their lot, he went to college and got a growing list of degrees.

A fire is good in one’s own hearth, but spreading it is called arson, so I wait for him to lose his smile, to dismiss his youthful indiscretion, to admit his folly. I am myopic, but not naïve. This was so long ago. I wasn’t even born yet. Workers might have needed unions then. Maybe in America, unlike the USSR, the unions did more than collect dues and count bodies for all the world to see.

“At some point,” he continues,” we decided that it wasn’t fair to have our beautiful place all to ourselves. If we had two applicants: one Jewish and one Negro, we’d always take the Negro family.” He looks very pleased with himself. The Communists had been ahead of the curve by decades, the first ones not only to think of being fair but to actively engineer it. I take a moment to recall anything they had begun that ended well for them or for me. The true believers had been killed off by the careerists in the first decades of the Soviet Communist Party rule, but their love of all things fair lived on. There were three percent of Jews in the USSR; what discrimination against me was I complaining about when my people were already getting their fair share? Though in 1979 I made it out intact from the land of the right angles to the land of the free, I don’t wish on anyone the fate of a refugee.

The finale of the movie shows the buildings as they stand in the Bronx now. The luster of the manicured courtyards is all in the past, but the neighborhood still looks presentable. It’s no longer a co-op, having been taking over by a private company after the owners had refused to raise maintenance by one dollar—they had thought it unfair, that it would lead to raising rent prices everywhere—so they lost control over the whole place.

The former Jewish residents, who’ve been interviewed in the documentary, are just visitors, retired professors from various colleges. They hug and chat with the new residents who are all black. Jews don’t live in these buildings anymore.

Peace on earth. Love of humanity. Spread the good news and get the hell out.

I exit the theater, stunned and alert. He’s somewhere around here, my first American Communist. I can feel it. Documentary film makers often bring their subjects along to speak to the audience, so I narrow my eyes and train them on the crowd.

I don’t discriminate among the racists, so the handsome old man exuberant in his recollection of how he voted on applicants based on their skin color is a racist in my book. There is no disgrace in favoring someone who applies first, whatever the color. There is no dishonor in favoring your own family, if that’s your pleasure. There is no shame in liking a person or even having the hots for someone. It’s human. But loving a group? When a gentile says, “I love the Jews,” I take it as a cue to move on. I’m not Jews—I’m me. Take it or leave it. From group-hug to group-hate is but a step.

The next film is in half an hour, so I head to the cafeteria where a bunch of us gather to have a cup of coffee to keep us awake during the next film and to argue about what we’ve just seen. That’s what Jews do. At least the ones I like to hang out with. I don’t know these people personally, but have met them often enough at the festival to feel some camaraderie.

A middle-aged couple settles next to me. Their faces look frozen, their eyes wide, as if they can’t quiet believe what they have just seen. But the rest of the crowd yaks as if they have just seen the usual--the gas chamber extermination or the shooting in the back of the heads at the edge of a ravine.

The wife locks her eyes with me. A current passes between us: we are allies. We have a tacit understanding that we have just witnessed the hatching of something terrible that neither of us can stop. It had begun before we were born and it had grown already. It’s not Communism but it’s equally frightening. We don’t know how to name it yet.

A discussion of the good old days is raging already among the attendees. A seventy-something guy on my right stirs sugar substitute in his coffee. His fingernails are professionally manicured. His profile is heroic. He towers over the tallest of the men in the room by at least a foot. “Those were the days,” he says and chuckles. He exudes affability and charm. His voice crackles familiarly. It dawns on me—it’s him, the guy in the movie. My Communist.

But before I can score, I want to make sure that it’s not just the appearance, that he is the real thing—a true believer, card-carrying or not--so I look at him point blank. “Aren’t you sorry for what you did?”

“Excuse me?” The rest of the attendees—except my two allies—sneer at me. Now, I’m officially a troublemaker they’ll avoid sitting next to during the festival.

“Wasn’t living a good life enough for you? The co-op was so beautiful, such a great place to bring up children. Did you really have to go and stir up trouble in all those other places? Did you not know Communism was evil and it killed as many millions as Hitler? If not in the beginning, surely you must’ve found out later. Were you really a Communist? A true believer?”

“Were? You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he tells me. He’s just slightly annoyed, more bemused than irritated. I’m a nincompoop, a green freshman in his class. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” he says. “Communism is not what you might think. It is—”

“It’s don’t do unto others,” I say and get up. Here in Florida, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, sipping coffee, dressed in fashionable poet’s blouse, meticulously groomed, smelling of eau-de-cologne, sits my first, genuine, unrepentant Communist. As solid on the outside and inside as the best of my Soviet porcini. A winner. I hadn’t had an expert guide in America, so it took me a while to spot him.

There is no point in listening to him extolling the beauty of fire: arsonists and victims have different points of view. “I hope you’ll have a chance to live out your days at the co-op,” I tell him. “I hope they let you back in, though you don’t look the right color.” I mean he is red. And white. I wish he were blue. He could’ve been all American but he chose not only to become but to live his life in monochrome hue.

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