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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Hill

by Jay Solomon

Myers Heights is perched atop a hill overlooking the southern mouth of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. With its grassy acres and sweeping views of the bucolic countryside and placid waters, the tiny hamlet would be considered prime real estate in today’s market. “Scrape Off-Opportunity with Hundred Acre Wood” a listing might read.

Much has changed in the past sixty years. At the last mid-century mark Myers was a patchy settlement of dirt driveways, car ports, and factory houses built for Arab immigrants who labored deep beneath the lake bed mining rock salt. Neighbors burned their trash in fifty-five gallon drums and tossed their leftover meals over the side of the embankment. The half-composted food scraps germinated into a jungle of wild garlic, tomatoes, and mint interwoven with cattail, poison ivy, pricker bushes, and water-logged baseballs.
At the stern of the hill was a small orthodox A-frame church. It made for a natural gathering place, but the front doors only opened for Easter and Christmas. The side door to the basement, on the other hand, was rarely locked. That’s where a congregation of men took refuge and played pinochle and poker, smoked cigars, studied the horse paper, and commiserated.

The hill was a tight-knit but combustible community. Second cousins married each other, sets of brothers married sets of sisters, and relatives fought and reconciled and fought some more. You needed a chalkboard to keep track of old grudges and new alliances and who was speaking or not speaking to each other. Names were just as confusing; there was Abraham George and George Abraham, Johnny Mike and William John, three or four Catherines and at least one George George. Family trees were so gnarled that everyone gave up and just called each other “cousin.”

Whoever planned the housing settlement on the hill didn’t believe in switchbacks or swooping s-curves; the road down to the bottom was steeper than a bobsled run. You were met at the end of the quarter mile chute by a hairpin turn onto a one lane bridge over Salmon Creek. If you were on a banana bike you crossed yourself at the top and sailed down like a bullet train, furiously pumping the brakes and praying you didn’t miss the turn and plunge over the side of the bridge and into the drink.
The nearest traffic light was ten miles away in Ithaca, a bustling college town of hippies and expatriate city slickers. Grandmothers and young mothers caught rides to Ithaca and loaded up with groceries and got their hair done while men passed the time over coffee at a Greek diner. With their olive complexion, dark hair, and heavy eye brows, the Arab men felt a kinship with their Mediterranean brethren. It helped that the Greeks also liked to gamble. If you wanted to place a bet on football or had a horse racing tip (the race track was seventy miles away), Nick the Greek (or Pete or Jimmy) would take your bet.

It wasn’t easy being an Arab in small town America. The Italians had Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra, the Greeks had Telly Savalas and the Olympics, the Irish had the Kennedys, and the Jews had Hollywood. Who did the Arabs have? Danny Thomas? Only a trivia buff knew he was Lebanese. The poet Khalil Gibran was too esoteric for Arabs to boast about. Arab-Americans weren’t on the big screen or in big games—they’d have to wait fifty years before Salma Hayek and Tony Shalub arrived. This wasn’t a function of ability—there just weren’t enough of them. Italian-Americans outnumbered Arabs by a thousand to one. The Irish had a fifty year head start. The odds were not stacked in their favor.

No matter. My father’s generation—Otsie, Dickie, Clay, Margie and the rest—went off to college and left the salt mines behind. They traveled widely, married, and honeymooned in Niagara Falls. The hill grew older and more removed from the modern world, but when it came time to raise a family, the descendants drifted back. Not to live on the hill—that would be too close. The second wave moved to newer houses five miles up the road, homes built with mud rooms, paved driveways, decks on the back, and best of all, municipal water (the hill’s well water stunk of rotten eggs).

The family tree grew bigger and a multitude of grandkids—now two generations removed from the Abrahams and Georges—were no longer hyphenated Americans. This generation knew the Pledge of Allegiance by heart, excelled in school and played every sport imaginable. They hung out at the Ithaca mall, hitch-hiked to the movies, and spent summers skipping stones on the lake and fishing for blue gills and sunfish. My older cousins rooted for the Yankees, idolized Joe Namath, rocked to Led Zeppelin, and ogled at bra models in the JC Penney catalogue. Assimilation was fait accompli.

That is, assimilation was complete for all except one. There was still one Arab left on the hill. His name was Riad Mahar. My cousin Riad (pronounced like Riyaud, the capital of Saudi Arabia) grew up in my grandmother’s house (Tayta Badia Solomon). His mother, Margaret, graduated from a state college near Buffalo and took a bank job in Ithaca. Somewhere along the line Margie grew a wild streak, and while the other Arab-American women settled down and learned to cook stuffed grape leaves and cabbage rolls, she was booking cruises to the Middle East and Europe, escaping to Broadway shows and vacationing in Haiti.
Around the time of JFK’s presidency, Margie fell in love with an admiral from Egypt. The two married, or possibly they eloped—I’ve never seen wedding pictures—and cousin Riad was born shortly afterwards. From there the details get murky. At some point it was determined that an Egyptian sailor was not moving to America much less Myers. Margie and Riad (about three at the time) retreated to Myers to live with Tayta Badia. Riad’s father visited less and less frequently until finally he wasn’t heard from again.

Undaunted, Margie started over as a single mother, founded a temp agency in Ithaca, and continued to embark on excursions around the world. On the hill Riad was in the good hands of his grandmother as well as a village of elders. Riad’s extended clan treated him like a boy prince. At Christmastime he needed a spare bedroom to store all of his gifts. His trove of chocolate bunnies at Easter far exceeded everyone else’s bunnies combined—it was impossible for him to eat it all. There were whispers that Riad’s globetrotting mom had taken him to audition for a modeling agency in New York.

While Riad was enthroned on the hill, I was growing up in a ranch-style house in a neighborhood of rectangular lots separated by long rows of burly hedges. Like so many affordable homes built in the 1970’s, our house was functional, economical, and soul crushing. The walls were made of half-inch dry wall; if you pushed hard enough, your hand went right through it. The builders must have skimped on the insulation, and in the winter you could feel cold drafts blowing through the window sills and door jambs.

This slice of modern Americana was foreign to my father—he had grown up with fireplaces, unlocked doors and back yards without borders. Myers continued to be intimate and surreal—some of the elder Arabs still walked down a dirt path to the lake with a bar of soap and wash cloth draped over their shoulder. Compared to life on the hill, our existence seemed monochromatic and artificial. We barely knew our neighbors, wanly waving to them at the mail box and garbage pick-up.

Then there was my situation. When I was about ten, the assimilation train was leaving the depot without me. My idea of fun was curating the comic strips found on the back of Bazooka bubble gum wrappers. I collected the world’s most worthless junk: the plastic toys hidden inside cereal boxes. Thumbing through our Encyclopedia Britannica library was how I spent a rainy day. My eyesight was 20/400 and glasses helped my vision but didn’t help my image.

In my defense, there weren’t many kids my age nearby—the closet friend lived miles away. There wasn’t anyone around to play catch or to go hunting for salamanders or to make a tree hut. It was a life devoid of drama and adventure.

My parents were stupefied. The Arabs could overcome hard scrabble beginnings, they could deal with cold showers and outhouses and water that smelled of sulfur—but raising a weird kid? That was out of their comfort zone.

They decided to send me to the hill. The summer before fifth grade my father dropped me off for days at a time with hopes that I’d get some old world Arab sense instilled in me. Maybe I’d learn how to whittle a stick or kill a snake or build a fire. My cousin Riad was there and though a smidge younger than me, maybe he’d be a good influence.

Trouble was, Riad was no boy scout. If my world was imitation vanilla ice cream topped with candy corn, his was a Friendly’s banana split drowning in hot fudge and whipped cream. What’s more, the young prince of Myers with the treasure chest full of stuffed animals was getting restless with all the attention and preferential treatment lavished on him.

I soon realized that I was not going to charm school. On my first visit we were gently encouraged by our grandmother to eat our peas so we would grow up to be big and strong and possibly become president. I dutifully cleaned my plate. Riad blew his nose into a slice of Wonder bread, rolled it into a ball and shoved it in his mouth. That set the tone for our summer—he was yin and I was yang.

The next day we set out on bikes to go fishing in the creek that ran beneath the bridge. The road downhill to the lake wasn’t steep enough for Riad—he wanted to take a shortcut over the cliff behind the church. We searched for a dry gully that offered a negotiable landing of sand and pebble. Riad got a running start and launched his bike over the edge, pulling a wheelie in mid-air and landing ass over tin cup. My heart stammered but I had no choice but to follow suit. Like a little Evil Knievel I sailed my bike over the edge and into space, leaving behind reticence and caution, half-sliding and half-rolling to the bottom. I got up giddy with adrenaline.

I brought a donated fishing pole with a worm hook; Riad brought a stash of cherry bombs and fishing net. Walking along the creek we spotted a school of rainbow trout swimming upstream in shallow water. Before I had chance to drop a line, Riad lit a match to a cherry bomb and tossed it into the water as it exploded. We covered our ears and squealed with laughter, the burst of fireworks sent shards of fish and seaweed everywhere and showered us in an acrid and disgusting mess. That was different.

The waters now muddied, we slogged downstream to the trestle. Viewed with a mixture of anxiety and trepidation, the train trestle loomed large over the creek. In the nineteen-thirties a great flood had washed out the trestle and three boys from Myers had drowned. Snakes could be seen basking in the sun on the rails. Snakes—I hated snakes. And there was always the dark fear of getting my foot wedged between railroad ties as a train approached.

I mentioned the thing about the snakes but Riad paid no attention and scrambled up the side of the embankment and onto the tracks. I followed and gingerly tiptoed over the ties to the middle of the span, pausing to look for shadows of fish below. No fish. We waited. Still no fish. We sat down on the tracks and I dropped a fishing line into the water. We waited some more.

While our legs dangled over the side, we talked about girls in school who were getting boobs and boys who had balls the size of a moose. We compared grape leaves to cousa, the Mets to the Yankees and debated whether Mountain Dew tasted like piss. Mostly we talked about everything and nothing.
On the northern horizon my private nightmare was coming to life in the form of a distant train approaching. I pulled my line out of the water and hustled to get up. Riad was not of the same mind. “We’re jumping” he said as he stood up.

“No we’re not.”

“Yes we are.”

“I’m afraid of snakes”, I confessed again.

“No shit. Every Arab on the hill is afraid of snakes.”

“Well, I can’t swim."

He looked at me incredulously. “You can doggie–paddle to the banks.”

The water’s depth was about five feet—deep enough for a jump, but too deep for wading. The train grew larger and more ominous.

“Geronimo!” Riad screeched as he cannonballed over the side and let loose a splash. He paddled over to the boulders on the creek’s shore. “You can touch bottom,” he yelled.

I glumly looked down at the stream below. “I can’t see bottom.”

“Jump you sonuvabitch, jump!” he called back.

“I TOLD YOU I CAN’T SWIM!” The train was approaching the final bend and coming down the stretch. I was losing my chance to scramble off the trestle like a normal kid from the suburbs. Riad grabbed a piece of drift wood and stuck it out. “Grab this. Now jump!”

“Oh, for crissakes!” I pinched my nose and plunged into the stream. I touched bottom and bobbed up to the surface. Squirming and splashing, I groped my way toward the drift wood. Just as I reached out, Riad let it go and it floated downstream away from my grasp. He waded further in and grabbed my flailing arm.

“C’mon, don’t be a pussy! Look down—you can see your feet.” He pulled me towards the shore and I felt the reassurance of river stones beneath me. As the train rumbled overhead, we sat silently on the boulders of the embankment. Although the trip from panic zone to safe haven took less than ten seconds, my neat and tidy life of watching cartoons, collecting stickers, and perusing encyclopedias floated away from me like another piece of driftwood. I needed more of this—more splashing in the muck, more bobbing in the water, more snickering about girls and boners and titty-twisters.

After the train’s caboose finally rolled over the trestle, I stood up.

“Let’s go,” I said.

“You wanna go home?” Riad asked.

“No. Let’s do it again!”

Up the banks we went, plunging into the creek again and again, each splash bigger and louder than the one before.

Soon it was getting close to lunchtime. Soaking wet and smelling of seaweed and brine, we pushed our bikes back up the hill. It didn’t occur to me until years later that assimilation was a choice, not a necessity. For some, assimilation equaled conformity, and conformity can be boring. I had learned that there’s more than one way to get down a hill, to catch a fish, or to dodge a train. Perhaps assimilation had a wiser, younger cousin called ingenuity.

Tayta Badia had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a bowl of hummus waiting for us. Riad’s sandwich already had the crust removed. It was a perfect lunch.

Jay Solomon is a playwright, essayist and cookbook author. Jay’s writing career started in Ithaca, New York in the early 1990’s where he wrote a popular local food column that rolled into a dozen cookbooks. Jay moved to Denver in 1998 to open a café, one of two he currently owns, and for several years found success in the kitchen while his first love, writing, was all but forgotten. Since returning to writing in 2010, many of his essays have since been featured in the Denver Post’s weekly “Your Hub” section and his first play “Café Americana” received a staged reading at the Bruka Theater in Reno and at the Denver Center Theater Academy. Jay has four children with his wife Emily.

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