The Family Romance of American Communism
On Vivian Gornick
Vivian Gornick. The Romance of American Communism. Verso, 2020.
We had just left the new Trader Joe’s on Grand Street, and I was pointing out the old Lower East Side settlement house, when my father remembered the note he’d made to tell me about the communist neighbors. He played at their house all the time, he said, until his mother stopped speaking to the communist mother because she had called him an intellectual snob. We all shrugged, like, fair enough. He’d been a piano prodigy, precious and arrogant.
“How did you know they were communists?” I asked. “I guess they must have talked about it,” he said. We walked up the front steps of Hillman, the complex in the Grand Street co-ops where my parents stay when they visit me in New York. The communist parents never got married, he added, “because the party said marriage was a bourgeois institution, or something.” I said the Communist Party was actually very pro-marriage at the time. Both my parents stiffened a little, like I was splitting hairs. “Well, for whatever reason, they never got married.”
The Grand Street apartment belonged to a distant relative on my mother’s side, an elderly Orthodox woman I didn’t know. She had lived an hour away in Queens for decades, but could neither bring herself to sell the property nor set foot in it, so her daughter loaned it out to visitors. It comprised two units that had at some point been merged into one, folding out from the center like an accordion. There were two front doors, though only one was in use, and two kitchens, one for milk and one for meat. The rooms were filled with archaic media: video recordings of sitcoms and Holocaust documentaries, almanacs of baseball statistics and Billboard charts. That afternoon I began interviewing my parents at the plastic-shrouded dining table that sat before a large mirror in one of the apartment’s two living rooms. I was trying to piece together a political history of my family. Sometimes I worried that I didn’t have the right genes to be a leftist.
We all thought the apartment was a total trip and enjoyed the sensation of being trapped there. Few of our ancestors had spent meaningful time in New York before heading west to the Canadian prairies or Southern California. These cousins, on the other hand, had owned an umbrella shop on Orchard Street, lending a ring of authenticity to the crap lying around the apartment — rabbi figurines just shy of anti-Semitic caricature, yellowed sheet music — that differentiated it from identical junk back home. But there was also something arrestingly strange about a home abandoned in this way instead of aging along with its inhabitants; every anachronism seemed art-directed, carefully selected to capture the gestalt of the whole, like a movie set or a house museum. It was an honor to be related to such canonical people.
New York’s 20th-century high-rises are black boxes, concealing class differences behind a uniformity of ugliness. There are private developments and low-income projects run by the city and middle-income co-ops run by the state and complexes built by unions as worker housing and complexes built by socialist organizations for their members. Some high-rises, like the Grand Street co-ops, used to be public and are now private. Those that have remained public, holdovers from another time, have waiting lists that can stretch over decades, so the easiest way to get an affordable unit is to inherit one. Communists’ apartments were all alike, which is to say, they looked like everyone else’s.
Throughout much of the world, Communist Party membership skewed heavily male. In the United States, however — where the party had accumulated around seventy-five thousand members at its peak in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as many fellow travelers — it was largely composed of families. In immigrant enclaves, communism gave foreign-born parents and their American-born offspring a common language, reproduced through a network of Sunday schools, youth groups, and summer camps. McCarthyism tore many communist families apart, but only strengthened domestic ties in others: ejected from the public sphere, party life was pushed more deeply into the private one.
For anticommunists, the notion that families could incubate radical politics rather than buffer against them belonged to the world of horror movies. Communists were Twilight Zone people, body snatchers, homosexuals, Jews, a charade of averageness. At the same time, their ease at blending in suggested that the American spirit had already been snuffed out, by television or the monotony of office life. You never knew if the Kremlin was involved in these endeavors. Strong mothers were necessary to the protection of the free world, but threatened to smother the same masculine autonomy they were charged with cultivating. Any overbearing matriarch could be Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate, a communist spy trained in mind control who uses playing cards to bewitch her war hero son into becoming an assassin. Any spineless son could turn out to be a red diaper baby.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, perhaps the most famous American communists, lived with their two sons a few blocks from Hillman in a middle-income housing development called Knickerbocker Village, also notable for the rent strike that took place there during the Depression. The Rosenberg trial was, as the novelist William Gass put it later, “a family affair.” Ethel’s brother, David, and his wife testified against his sister. (He would ultimately recant, saying he had done it to save his own family.) Ethel’s mother was furious that she had involved David in communist organizing and did not attend her daughter’s funeral. Half the ensemble was Jewish: the judge, lawyers on both sides.
Jewish anticommunists trying their best to assimilate into white America found the entire thing humiliating. For the critic Leslie Fiedler, Knickerbocker Village was a “melancholy block of identical dwelling units that seem the visible manifestation of the Stalinized petty-bourgeois mind: rigid, conventional, hopelessly self-righteous.” Fiedler hated Ethel’s solicitous letters to President Eisenhower asking him to take pity on her “small unoffending Jewish family” and vowing that she “would be homesick anywhere in the world” for the USA. He hated the memory of the 1930s, when Jews became spokesmen “for that sentimental radicalism which best reflected the Depression mood of the United States.” Without elaborating, Fiedler darkly reminisced: “What a strange marriage we celebrated then, without quite knowing it, between Karl Marx and the Jewish Mother.” Almost as though he were ashamed of where he came from.
Sometimes my mother accuses me of trying to replace her, and it’s true that I have imagined subbing out my parents for people who look just like them but are completely different. Freud calls this fantasy the family romance; he says it happens a lot. There was a conspiracy of resemblance outside my window: the LA suburbs played every city on television, even New York. Once, at 10 or 11 years old, I was home alone making cookies and I crossed our wide, empty street to ask a neighbor for an egg, like a housewife in a sitcom. I was reprimanded; the neighbors would think I was neglected. What could be more awful than a child with a nice single-family home wanting to live in an apartment?
Vivian Gornick’s mother, Bess, believed that the Lower East Side was for “Jewish gangsters” and that “politically enlightened” Jews, communists like herself and her family, belonged in the Bronx. The borough was home to the city’s largest socialist housing development, the United Workers Cooperative Colony, built by Jewish radicals and known simply as the Coops, but Gornick, born in 1935, grew up in a tenement apartment — “a building full of women,” she writes in her 1987 memoir, Fierce Attachments, locked together in poverty and sexual frustration. Caustic and resourceful, Bess served as a center of gravity among these disorderly neighbors, but turned sharply inward after her husband’s early death. Gornick grew up to become a writer and a feminist who lived alone in Greenwich Village, an alien in her mother’s world. In Fierce Attachments, mother and adult daughter speed-walk furiously around the city, arguing about the possibilities for women’s lives.
But solidarity also had the power, dramatic if fleeting, to blur other lines of division.Tweet
For the past five decades, Gornick has examined the conditions of women’s entrapment and the possibility of their freedom. Less stylish but more immediate than her contemporary Joan Didion, and famously testy in interviews, she is a roving feminist critic cherished for her commitment to dissatisfaction. Ten years before Fierce Attachments, her breakthrough success, Gornick made a first attempt at writing about her youth in the Bronx. Published in 1977, her book The Romance of American Communism was a passionate, unwieldy auto-ethnographic work that zoomed out from her own upbringing to encompass the everyday life of the Communist Party in the United States. Initially scorned by critics and long out of print, it has recently become a cult classic among younger leftists and was reissued by Verso this spring.
The Romance of American Communism opens in Gornick’s childhood apartment, this time bathed in a soft, hazy light. In Fierce Attachments the building must generate its own claustrophobic melodrama, but in Romance the outside is always pouring in. Immigrant workers congregated regularly in Gornick’s parents’ kitchen to eat black bread with herring and debate politics in Yiddish. Only some were party members, but all were part of the party’s orbit, and it linked them in solidarity with workers everywhere. In her household, the fact that “Papa worked hard all day long” — he pressed clothes in a dress factory — was spoken with reverence; the rest of the family was asked to identify with his toil, perhaps in some ways not so differently from how patriarchs are revered in more conservative households. But solidarity also had the power, dramatic if fleeting, to blur other lines of division. “Before I knew that I was Jewish or a girl,” Gornick writes in the book’s astonishing first line, “I knew that I was a member of the working class.”
This world came to an end in 1956, Gornick explains at the outset of Romance, when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s atrocities against the people of the Soviet Union and thousands of members, already strained by state persecution, left the Communist Party within weeks. Gornick, then a City College student living at home but drifting away from the party, became numb to politics. She spent much of the 1960s in Berkeley in an unhappy marriage and unfocused graduate school career, marching only rotely for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. Then, in 1969 — divorced, dropped out, and back in New York working as a reporter for the Village Voice — she discovered feminism. They sent her to cover a group of women’s liberationists, including future luminaries like Shulamith Firestone and Kate Millett, living together in Greenwich Village; she was skeptical at first, then consumed. “Within a week I was a convert,” she said several years ago in an interview. “Feminism was like lightning. It went right through me.”
Gornick was among the many children of communists who found a home within the new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Conservatives often accused young people who burned their draft cards or smoked marijuana of engaging in an oedipal revolt against their parents’ values, but they brought the opposite charge against “‘second-generation’ radicals,” indicting them for carrying on subversive family traditions. Rather than instigating “normal parent-child conflict,” an article in the campus conservative magazine Young Guard argued in 1964, such radicals were “reiterating for the millionth time parental doctrines learned from the cradle.” Sometimes this sort of messaging backfired; student organizers at University of California, Berkeley, for instance, received a windfall of useful recruitment data when the John Birch Society published a list of students from communist families. During her own stint at Berkeley, Gornick, removed for the first time from a working-class immigrant milieu, discovered that her political heritage was shocking to her new peers, who “thought of Communists as the nameless, faceless evil from across the sea.” Angered and confused, she responded by bringing up her family’s affiliations whenever possible, “exactly as I would have announced my Jewishness in the presence of open anti-Semitism.” She also began to wonder if she should write about her communist childhood. Where had she come from, and what had she taken with her?
Gornick tells this origin story in a new introduction to The Romance of American Communism, and it says much about the volume that emerged. Fundamentally, the book — Gornick’s second — is an attempt to make sense of a child’s enchanted universe in a world that has subsequently been destroyed, and to recover it through the romantic pursuit of oral history. In doing so, she traces a path from what she calls the “ingrown world” of the leftists among whom she grew up to the far-flung comrades of their lore: communists from Cleveland, communists from Hollywood. “Secretly, I think I had always believed along with J. Edgar Hoover that the Communists were all New York Jews of Eastern European origin,” Gornick writes. Researching the book, however, she discovered “that something I had been taught all my young life but had never actually believed was, in fact, true: the Communists had come from everywhere.” She interviewed dozens of older communists and (more often) ex-communists around the country, and devotes most of Romance to telling their stories.
A different writer might have used this material in the service of a conventional social history, exploring the strategies communists adopted to briefly gain a modicum of power in the United States. But Gornick was more interested in the prefigurative aspect of political organizing, in which action in the present serves not just as a step toward change in the future, but also as a model for that change. The Romance of American Communism asks how it was that thousands of Americans saw their lives transformed by the Communist Party. Despite their often desperate material circumstances and the drudgery of much rank-and-file party organizing — “years of selling the The Daily Worker, running off mimeographed leaflets, speaking on street corners, canvassing door-to-door for local and national votes” — they repeatedly echo Richard Wright, whose verdict Gornick cites early in the book: “There was no agency in the world so capable of making men feel the earth and the people upon it as the Communist Party.”
There is Dick Nikowsski, a slaughterhouse worker in Chicago radicalized the hot summer day a socialist coworker tells him that the plant’s owners are vacationing at the beach; he suddenly flashes upon his own image, “knee-deep in blood and shit all my life so that that picture could be taken,” and understands that because he can now see himself clearly, he can also refuse to accept what he sees. There is Will Barnes, born in a mining camp in Idaho, who witnesses the massacre of the Wobblies in Centralia, Washington, and is converted to communism by a charismatic sailor when he ships out to sea. There is Blossom Sheed, who migrates with her family from Memphis to Los Angeles and marries a cousin at 17. She cannot stop asking why so many people are poor, but her husband refuses to engage with the question. She eventually leaves him and their child and joins the cooperative movement, a Depression-era network of worker and consumer collectives; then, seeing the cooperators perpetually thwarted by capitalists, she joins the communists and rises to become the secretary-general of a party-run legal defense fund for striking farmworkers. There is Marian Moran, the daughter of leftist intellectuals in California who comes of age living and organizing with fruit pickers on strike in the Imperial Valley and goes on to serve for twenty-five years as a state party chairwoman. “I’ve had three husbands, slept with more men than I can count, borne children, had political power,” Moran tells Gornick. “Of all the emotions I’ve known in life, nothing compares with the emotion of total comradeship I knew among the fruit pickers in the Thirties.”
Inverting the old suspicions about Sovietized pod people, Gornick describes the American communists as being “like everybody else, only more so.” It is precisely the “humanizing” quality of their politics, she argues, that makes their failure to recognize Soviet authoritarianism so tragic. In the aftermath of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization speech, Gornick was horrified at the idea of remaining in the party, her aunt was furious with her for leaving, and her grief-stricken mother could not decide. “We alone remained — we three women — in this crumbling house to face the crumbling world outside the kitchen,” Gornick writes, and “stared at each other, each of us trapped in her own anguish.” Decades later, their arguments float back to her in dreams, and seem to have informed an understanding of politics she has returned to throughout her life. In her 2005 book, The Solitude of Self, she recalls attending a lecture by the liberal Israeli novelist David Grossman at which an audience member asked Grossman why Israeli youth had not risen up against their country’s rightward march. Grossman seemed nervous, “then burst out, ‘We cannot bear to alienate ourselves from our parents,’” Gornick writes. “Everyone in the room could feel his anxiety. In that moment I understood my own country better.”
Many characters in The Romance of American Communism describe losing their political innocence twice — first, when they joined the party, and second, when they left it. The power of their testimony comes in part from their insistence that the latter experience has complicated rather than undone the transformations wrought by the former. But despite the complexity of feeling Gornick records, the book’s child’s-eye view gave critics an opportunity to recycle old claims about the infantilism of the Communist Party. They were responding, perhaps, to the way that Romance preserves a Bronx accent — not a lyrical neighborhood voice like the ones Grace Paley channels in her stories about working-class New York Jews, but a searching, elevated descendant of the sound in Ethel Rosenberg’s earnest, autodidactic letters. Like his contemporary Leslie Fiedler, Irving Howe spent the early years of the cold war railing against the popular front’s “political baby talk.” Decades later, he wrote of Gornick, “One sometimes has to remind oneself that in her evocation of coziness and warmth she is writing about the CP in the time of Stalin and not about a summer camp.” And yet by the time Romance was published, the few remaining summer camps built by communists for their children in the early 20th century had already long survived the collapse of the party.
It is possible that Haimie, my father’s father, was a socialist like some of the men he played with in a mandolin band, but we don’t know because he didn’t talk much. In Leeds and then in Los Angeles he worked in a paintbrush factory, sorting bristles; ever since Poland, there had been rich Brostoffs who owned the brush factories and poor Brostoffs who labored in them, and he was among the latter. There were agitators at the factory, and my grandma, Freda, was always after him to join them. At the very least she wanted him to ask for a raise because he made $1.50 an hour. He would yell at her to leave him alone; he was a very quiet man. His passivity enraged her. Later he got Parkinson’s. Freda thought it was from the chemicals at the factory. He died of it, but he was old by then, and his children had long been comfortably middle class.
My mother’s father, Lou, grew up in a tiny railroad town in Saskatchewan called Pennant. Lou’s father, Max, had come from Bessarabia and settled near Sioux land in South Dakota before heading north to Pennant and opening a general store. The town has a mythic status in the family imagination, our own private nationalism, of which my mother is the keeper. She has lived in the suburbs of Los Angeles all her life, but she is a sort of gemeinschaft of one; wherever she goes, a little town appears. She traipses around the Valley, helping out: a bris in the morning, a bar mitzvah in the afternoon, a wedding in the evening, a funeral at night. I thought of her when I read the way the Christian socialist Frances Willard, leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the late 19th century, described the purpose of her organization: “It is to make the whole world homelike.” Both my parents are Democrats, and Zionists, like almost everyone around them.
I stopped arguing with my parents about Israel sometime in my early twenties. My mother in particular is a difficult person to disagree with. She is a woman who does not use a tape measure; her feet, she claims, each measure exactly one foot. Our fights had been exhausting and gotten us nowhere, so we learned to talk past each other. Neither of us had any desire to be marginal or besieged; we each wanted to be embedded in a transparently righteous social world, and tried to create hegemony through sheer force of personality. She would tell me who she had run into at the Israel march that day and I would tell her about my afternoon at the Palestine rally. Because we lived on opposite sides of the country, there was no chance of running into each other.
Once, when my parents were visiting, I broke this tacit compact on a drive to Philadelphia with my mother and her cousin Janet. Janet and her son had been in a heated email exchange about whether Israel was an apartheid state, and then, she said, his emails had simply stopped coming. “Well, and so we shall cease to speak of such things, and our generation shall rise,” I snapped from the back seat, like I was suddenly the Bible or something. Everyone was quiet; it isn’t nice to tell people they will be swept away by time.
I was living that year with my boyfriend in a middle-income public housing complex around the block from the Grand Street co-ops, and we were on our way to breaking up. I came back from Philadelphia and he still hadn’t cleaned the house, so I packed a bag and trudged across Delancey Street, under the Williamsburg Bridge, to Hillman. My mother rolled her eyes and said I couldn’t run home crying every time I was having relationship problems, a peculiar complaint since they were only there for the week. I understood then the power of the Grand Street apartment: it was a bargain-basement time machine that transported us to Vivian Gornick’s New York. Within its force field, every argument we had once, we seemed to have been rehashing for a hundred years.
Americans learned about Jewish mothers from Gertrude Berg, a radio and then television star whose alter ego, Molly Goldberg, was a national darling from the Great Depression until the McCarthy period. The Goldbergs — in its TV iteration it is sometimes described as the first sitcom— Molly and her clan through the daily adventures of Bronx tenement life: airshaft hijinks, surprise visitors. Molly was a “talkative busybody, a balaboste, but one with a loving heart,” the cultural historian Joyce Antler writes, “who solved all the problems of her family, neighborhood, and community through her skillful ‘mixing-in.’” The next Jewish woman to attract this kind of popular attention, Antler notes, was Ethel Rosenberg, who was widely portrayed as Molly’s inverse: alien, unnatural, a bad mother. Berg — like Ethel, a theatrically inclined New York daughter of immigrants— studiously kept politics off the air in an attempt to keep the specter of the second Jewish mother from tarnishing the first, but she did not entirely succeed. She ran in leftist circles and may have been blacklisted; she was ultimately pressured into firing her television husband, the communist actor Philip Loeb, who killed himself a few years later. And yet even as the figure of Ethel Rosenberg threatened the image of Molly Goldberg, Molly would not last long in her tenement in the absence of Ethel’s commitment to cooperative living. In the last seasons of The Goldbergs, filmed the years following the execution of the Rosenbergs, the family moves to the suburbs, where Molly is lonely.
In the 1970s, as public housing was decimated across the country, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg reappeared in a wave of literature and art. Adrienne Rich was haunted by Ethel’s thwarted ambitions — Ethel took acting classes at the Lower East Side settlement house and met Julius singing choral music at a fundraiser for the International Seamen’s Union — and by her mother’s cruelty toward her. She wonders in an elegy whether Ethel, if she’d lived, would have eventually moved out and gotten her own apartment. Other writers reimagined the experiences of the Rosenbergs’ children, excavating the recent fortunes of the American left in the form of the family saga. In E. L. Doctorow’s scorching 1971 novel, The Book of Daniel, Julius and Ethel become Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, Bronx communists executed after their closest comrade rats them out to the FBI. The horrific betrayal and loss forces their children into lives of total involution. Their son, Daniel, grows up to nurse his sexual fixation on his sister, Susan; Susan herself longs so ardently for the grave that she starts a nonprofit, the Paul and Rochelle Isaacson Foundation for Revolution.
The communist family in these stories is a fortress and a prison. No one gets out — and just as importantly, no one gets in. Who would understand, who could be trusted? Unable to reproduce, possessed by an inflamed partial recall of historical events drummed out of popular memory, communist families appear in red diaper family sagas as branches of a dying aristocracy. There is always someone trying ineptly to marry in or otherwise penetrate the family’s walls, as though a gas burner left on in an apartment were a carefully guarded flame. If we have run out of hope, let us retreat, catalog our losses, let us study arcana, assemble in public at times of escalated crisis, let us seek out traces of holiness, let us remember that we exist. The plot of every Jewish holiday. I started working on this essay nearly five years ago, and stopped because I could not bear the shame of being homesick for diaspora and its cramped families, when other people had real problems.
The shame, the shame. In 1976, a year before The Romance of American Communism came out, Irving Howe published World of Our Fathers, a thick best seller about the history of Jewish socialists in the United States. The most meaningful distinction between the books — the distinction that allowed Howe to accuse Gornick of reducing Stalinism to summer camp — is not the distinction between the socialist and communist movements in the United States, but the fact that Romance is so plainly about the world of Gornick’s mother. There is the unnamed schoolteacher who laughs and tells Gornick, “The Party was down on Freud, but in the Bronx we said, ‘Yeah, yeah, but your mother’s important, anyway.’” There is Sarah Gordon, another Jewish woman from the Bronx, who says,
I used to envy people who had come into the movement in adult life. I used to think: What a thrill it must be for people to Marxism, to discover the Party. Me, there’d never been a moment in my conscious life when the Party wasn’t there. There was Mama, there was Papa, there was the Party. I couldn’t tell where one left off and the other began. Especially, I couldn’t tell where my father left off and the Party began. . . . If my mother had ever wanted to sue for divorce she’d have had to name the Communist Party as correspondent.
There is Bess Gornick herself, in her kitchen, animating the communist horizon for her children as though prefigurative politics were just another term for reproductive labor. “He is a writer. She is a poet. He is a thinker,” Gornick recalls her mother whispering in Yiddish when she asked about the comrades gathered in their home; only later did she come to understand that “he, of course, drove a bakery truck. She was a sewing-machine operator.” The men in these stories walk out the door and disappear into the party; the women leave the door open and the party disappears into them. I wish Gornick had been able to picture Bess simultaneously as the whispering communist homemaker of Romance and the aching furious neighbor of Fierce Attachments. Between these images lies the possibility of a real reckoning with her mother as a subject.
Gornick took the poor reception of Romance to heart and came to see the book as a failure; even her new introduction decries it as defensive and overwritten. Her new fans on the left appear to puzzle her. And yet — perhaps because, like the sphinx of Thebes, she is implacable and looks like both a woman and a cat — she seems to get into a lot of conversations with young wanderers searching for their real parents. The volume’s new edition, she writes, is for them:
Today, the idea of socialism is peculiarly alive, especially among young people in the United States, in a way it has not been for decades. Yet today there is no existing model in the world of a socialist society to which a young radical can hitch a star or a truly international organization to which she or he can pledge . Socialists today must build their own unaffiliated version of how to achieve a more just world from the bottom up . It is my hope that Romance, telling the story of how it was done some sixty or seventy years ago, can act as a guide to those similarly stirred today.
We sat around the table at the Grand Street apartment. I thought my parents might not want to be interviewed about anything political, but when I turned on the tape recorder they opened up right away, as though we were merely reminiscing about the past. “I had my own socialist experience,” my mother said. She lived for a few months on a kibbutz near Acre, in northwest Israel, in 1972. She picked pears and worked in the chicken coops in exchange for room, board, and $5 a week. Her roommates were Russians — it was the time of the first big Soviet migration to Israel — and one day when they didn’t want to work they made big signs declaring themselves on strike. My mother suggested that they come up with a demand, so they demanded more cigarettes. The strike failed and they went back to work. Once she was hitchhiking and a young Palestinian man picked her up and for a while he became her boyfriend. She didn’t know he was Palestinian; the kibbutzniks had to tell her. She stayed in the country for nearly a year, and then she went home.
I asked what it meant to her that the kind of socialism practiced on the kibbutz was for Jews only, that the collective farms were built on top of other people’s bulldozed towns. “We didn’t hear about taking over lands,” she said. Then, she reflected, “Probably I was taught some of this and I wasn’t paying attention. Did my heart connect to something unrealistically because I didn’t know the darker side? And at the same time there was something very passionate and beautiful about having a connection to this homeland. I thought people would be doing Israeli dances in the street. It was this culture I had grown up with — Israeli song, dance, food — that was like, ‘Wow, this is a Jewish place.’”
Did my heart connect to something unrealistically because I didn’t know the darker side?Tweet
“We have a romance with Israel,” said my dad. We had been talking about Israel for so long, after so many years, that I almost forgot to ask them how they were feeling about the return of the left in American politics. “I have no problem with the rise in socialist ideals in the United States,” he said. “I have a lot of problems with the anti-Israel baggage that goes with it.” When I asked him about climate change, he said he was glad he’d be dead by then.
It became increasingly difficult, last year, to pretend that we agreed on much at all. I had given up on trying to be a woman and was working on becoming something else instead; my parents seemed to see my refusal to be a daughter as a refusal to be their child, another attempt to replace them. Israel and Palestine, the terms we had always used to contain our other disagreements, seeped out and were everywhere now. When I walked through my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I tried to hold its weathered stately architecture in my mind in case it should all come crashing down in a war. My friends and I tried our best to explain to our elders that uncooperative living was not safe, but unlike the American communists, the American Democrats did not think much about what their party had given them — a conception of space and time — until it started to break down.
No one really wanted to turn the recorder off, but it was getting late; my parents were heading up to visit friends in Westchester before returning to LA, and I was heading back to Brooklyn. They rolled their suitcases out to the curb and I hailed them a cab. I had thought I wanted to betray them but it turned out I just wanted to talk to them, and when I left, I didn’t want to leave them.
In New York, a snowless winter came. Our side was up in the national polls, and a sense of giddiness took hold, as though everyone were playing house, practicing for a new world that might or might not arrive. I dreamed my dad and I were arguing about health care in the Soviet Union, a topic on which we were equally ignorant. I woke up to myself mocking him for asking what was even the point of redesigning our medical system, given that nothing could be known about anything. “Sure!” I yelled. “Why are there camels? Why is there the sea?” In real life he told me he was thinking about voting for Amy Klobuchar in the California primaries, and I burst out laughing as though I had nothing to lose.
Then a few weeks passed and the climate changed. Sirens enclosed my neighborhood in a barrier of sound. Once, early in the isolation period, I walked all the way down the hill to the Walgreens on Fulton Street. Cops patrolled a line that stretched hygienically, beneath the filthy scaffolding, from the subway to the store. Inside, a tired pharmacist in a mask told me my insurance had no record of a prescription it normally covered every month, so I wandered the empty aisles, past shelves of aspirin and mascara, arranged pitifully beneath a former bank’s domed ceiling like cough drops at the bottom of a purse, until I was allowed to pay out of pocket. After that I did my best to stay in the relative countryside up the hill, leaving home only for the market and the little park next to our house, where police cars still circled lazily but new buds kept opening indifferently overhead. After a month I broke quarantine and walked down the street to a friend’s. Our other friend walked over from a different part of Brooklyn. We sat on the roof and looked at the fearsome Manhattan skyline absurdly far away. By the end of the night it was like we were all related.
My building is not very tall but it is wide, with wings folding out from the lobby like a parliament. Legally speaking it is a co-op; our landlord converted it in the 1990s in a real estate ploy, then bought and sublet nearly all the shares. When quarantine began, the world shrank to the building’s size and everyone became a mad housewife in their cabin fever. There were frenzies in the tenant WhatsApp thread: a package thief, tacos for 2L abandoned in the lobby. Chimney swifts were spotted on the roof of the haunted 19th-century institutional building — now a Seventh Day Adventist school, someday slated to be dwarfed by condos — across the street. Once someone saw turkey vultures. “Sure it wasn’t management?” someone else asked. It became clear that if rent continued to drain from the apartments, the neighborhood would wash away. We formed a committee and slipped flyers under doors. They came back covered in complaints. Upstairs a patch of black mold was growing in a baby’s room; it measured less than a square foot, so the housing inspectors couldn’t be bothered. I desperately wanted to learn everyone’s problems and names.
I fantasized at first that organizing my building would be a chance to prove my masculinity, but soon I realized that I had once again become my mother. In California, she canceled cousin Shaindie’s 100th birthday party, but bragged that she’d still dropped off deli sandwiches. I boasted back that I’d bought groceries for an old lady I didn’t even know. I gabbed on the phone with neighbors for hours a day, loading and unloading the dishwasher, telling the same stories over and over. There was a death in the family in 4M and I brought flowers; 6J brought me strawberry biscuits. My mother helped plan a Zoom bat mitzvah. In my building, we withheld the rent.
There was Selma Gardinsky, a red diaper baby from Brooklyn transplanted to Boston by marriage, where she took a unionized office job and became an organizer in an attempt to catch the party’s eye. She left her husband “without so much as a backward glance” when the union offered her a position back in New York; there, she was recruited by the Communist Party and went to work for it for “the best ten years” of her life. “Whatever else we were or were not as Communists,” Gardinsky told Gornick, “we were not lonely.” There was Bernie Sanders, a socialist from a Brooklyn immigrant family who does not appear in Romance. He became the mayor of a small city in Vermont, then a senator, and finally ran twice for President. “I have cast some lonely votes, fought some lonely fights, mounted some lonely campaigns,” he wrote in 2015. “But I do not feel lonely now.” I don’t feel lonely anymore, but it isn’t nearly enough. An infinite amount of care seems necessary. While we gather our strength, the lucky ones among us will grow old.