Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Am I My Sister’s Keeper?…by Robert M. Katzman (written in 2004)


Am I My Sister’s Keeper? 

by Robert M. Katzman Copyright 2004

(First, this note. I am my Father’s son. But he was the son of Eastern European immigrants, people who fled from Jewish genocide in the Russian Czar’s Pale. They were terrified defenseless people.  Their son Israel (1912-2000), however, grew up in the dangerous West Side of Chicago’s gangs in the Thirties who fought with the Polish and Irish gangs to hold their turf. Then he spent three and a half years in the Pacific fighting the Japanese with General MacArthur, getting wounded but determined to stay in the fight. He was NOT a terrified Jew. An American who was very different than his parents, and who transferred that sense of justice and defiance to me in his many stories over my younger years. In many ways, I became an extension of him, of what he believed. Of what his sense of justice was. I never dreamed that connection would lead to this story. Welcome to my very strange world, reader.  Believe it.)

 

In the winter of ’79 I received an unusual call from my father, Israel, who was living at that time in Sherman Oaks, California. My home was just south of Chicago.

My Dad was very distressed, I could hear it in his voice, because my older sister, Bonnie, had called him, in tears, he said because some foreign creep was stalking her at the school where she was a teacher. She was five months pregnant at the time with her first child, and the unnerving situation, my father told me, was only adding to her distress.

My father then repeated to me my sister’s description of that man. He was young, in his late twenties, like I was, tall and from Eastern Europe. My Dad’s voice also conveyed his anger and frustration at not being able to intervene on his daughter’s behalf and set straight the guy who was tormenting her.

Which, in my father’s world, did not involve a lot of conversation. He was a tough Jew, born on the west side of Chicago, in 1912. His violent clashes with rival immigrant gangs in the late twenties and early thirties, as he often told me, did not begin with gentle negotiations over turf. The common language of those young men of different nationalities, were swinging fists.

He told me the man’s name as best as he could pronounce it, and pleaded with me to act on his behalf, do as he would do to this guy, if he was able to be here himself.

This situation had never before occurred between us. His request seemed to me to be something from medieval times, like something I imagined to be Sicilian, where a father would send his son as an emissary to defend the honor of that father’s daughter.

I was hesitant to respond to him, though I had a deep love and respect for my father, and would rarely contest his wishes when he asked me to do something for him. But for me to become the violent tool of my faraway father’s anger, and to be asked to attack a complete stranger, well…I fell silent…not sure how to respond to him. It was like he was reaching through the phone to grab me, and drag me back in time to be part of his gang, to stand up for him, when he himself could no longer fight.

To complicate the situation further, I was not particularly close to my sister, or she might have called me in the first place. But, she didn’t. My father asked me not to discuss his intentions toward that strange guy with my sister. This would be no problem for me since there was little communication between us as it was.

But the very idea that I was to go hunting for a big guy from another country in my sister’s school, and then attack him—to persuade him to leave my sister alone—was a lot for me to absorb that cold winter night.

There was no question, however, that I would carry out my father’s wishes. We were extraordinarily close and very old fashioned in our concepts of right and wrong. His values, were my values. Some kinds of behavior were simply not to be permitted.

Though I was fearful of the possible consequences to me of attempting to carry out my father’s request, I would never say “no” to him. I was twenty-eight years old, but I understood his emotions perfectly. I also had a young daughter, my first child, who was then just three and a beauty. If someone tried to harm Lisa, no one could reason with me either.

But really, I was not so confident that I could carry out his objective. Chicago was not Dodge City or Tombstone, Arizona in the 1880s, though some people from other countries still thought that was true. The Chicago police frowned on a deliberate attack by one citizen upon another. But still…

From my long association with many policemen that I came to know pretty well, at my Hyde Park newspaper stand, I suspected that there would be a strong sense of empathy among them in this kind of situation. Something told me that many cops would feel just about the same way as my father felt. That some jerks were just off the legal radar screens and a different set of rules would kick in.

It had a name.

Street Justice.

Well, I had a couple of problems to solve to do what my Dad wanted. One problem was, at that time in 1979 I was missing most of my left jawbone due to cancer surgery a decade earlier. An early bone transplant attempt to replace the missing piece had failed, so I knew that I was unable to sustain a blow to my face.

Still, I viewed that as a matter that I could overcome. When a person gets it in his mind to do something dangerous, like I was determined to do out of respect for my father, a certain fatalistic perspective comes into play…at least, for me it did.

Logical, rational behavior is set aside, and discovering direct paths to do the deed desired becomes paramount. Stopping another larger person from hitting me in the face was just one more item to be checked off a list, like, say, buying eggs.

My other problem was the guy’s big size, somewhere over six feet my father believed. This meant that he would have a longer reach if he decided to make a grab for me. I might have surprise going for me, since my target didn’t know who I was or that I was after him. But I knew that if I couldn’t knock him down my first time out, I very likely would not get a second chance. Then both of my father’s children would be in peril.

So…I couldn’t fail.

I struggled with trying to devise a plan to go about defeating this idiot plaguing my sister. At last, I resigned myself to the reality that there was only one way I could learn what I needed to know to both get the guy good and yet still protect myself.

I went to the police.

Now some people reading this story may wonder why this wasn’t my first act to help my sister get rid of her stalker. But that wasn’t what my father wanted.

He didn’t want the guy arrested.

He wanted him punished.

And I was to be my Dad’s tool of destruction.

So my going to the police was not to file a complaint, or seek their assistance in some way. No. What I was after, was technique.

I was working almost every night distributing magazines to my customers in the downtown area of Chicago. I went to a large police station that I knew about at Clark and Chicago streets, on the eastern corner, north side of the street. The building was an architectural masterpiece that today, twenty-five years later, is an expensive condominium address. Back in 1979, though, it was still an old red-brick building full of guys with guns.

I parked my big delivery van at the curb and tramped through the dirty, icy slush to the large, thick glass front doors of the station, under a curved stone arch set in the brick. When I walked through them, I saw this huge white marble staircase before me, like something out of a Hollywood movie. It went straight up toward the second floor of the station, then it branched off gracefully to the left and to the right, like a marble elm tree.

There had been no one on the first floor when I walked in. It must have been a quiet night.

After some hesitation, rehearsing lines I was going to tell some cop to get him to help me, I began slowly climbing the marble staircase. Then, at the top of the stairs, on the right, I saw a very tall black policeman in a blue uniform, with bulging arm muscles and very handsome, too. Like he was an actor on this set.

He seemed to me to be a good man to talk to, but his face was very serious. I wondered how to say what I wanted to say. He was about the same age as I was.

He saw me approaching him as he was about to descend the stairs, and I put up both hands to signal him to stop, and also to show him that I had nothing in my hands. The cops I had met at my newsstand years before when I worked there day and night advised me that their first concern when they saw an unknown man approaching them was whether he was armed, or not.

The black cop in the station stopped quickly at the top of the stairs and looked me over. He still wasn’t smiling. But I was. Time to act. I said to him, politely,

“Officer, I have a difficult problem. I need some help. Can I talk to you?”

Another thing I had learned over the years about cops who patrolled the streets was that they really wanted to be needed. They wanted to help people, or, most of them did. So, my asking him for help seemed to be the right approach, and I would not appear threatening to him. I hoped.

The tall cop cocked his head, still standing where he had been and replied, crisply,

“What’s your problem, man?”

I slowly walked up a few more stairs so that I was standing right in front of him, but a few steps lower. I also remembered to make no fast moves. Cops don’t like that.

I decided to just tell him, straight out, and hoped that he would be sympathetic, and give me the information that I needed. I spoke to him very quietly, so that it was just between us.

“This weird guy is following my very pregnant sister around, where she works, and scaring her. I want to make very sure I can make him stop doing that. But I know that I’ve only got one shot at him. He’s bigger than I am.”

I paused to catch my breath. I saw that I had this cop’s attention. I deliberately left out the part that the place that she worked at was a school. I didn’t think he would approve of my actions happening…there. At the same time, I was watching him, too, and I knew that this was the kind of situation that made most cops narrow their eyes, in growing anger. I could see it in his eyes that he didn’t like this other guy, already.

Then I continued. First I turned my face to the right so that he could easily see the big scars running along my neck from my chin to my left ear.

“I can’t let the bastard hit me in the face or it could kill me. So I’ve got to stop him the first time I hit him. I’m not exactly sure how to do that so the fight is over fast. Can you help me? I don’t know what to do, but I have to stop him.”

The black cop’s face transformed.

His tensed body relaxed.

Though his eyes were still serious, he smiled at me.

I knew, just knew that he’d understand. I knew that I had gotten to the part of him that would do what he felt he had to do, if he was me. My gamble worked. He’d set the law aside.

We were no longer a stranger and a cop standing on the stairs at a police station. We were two men that had a problem to solve and I knew that this man would help me. He leaned in closer to me, and motioned with his hands for me to move up a step closer to him. Instant intimacy.

He must have realized my predicament. I also believe that he respected my determination and deep sense of justice. He whispered to me,

“Make a fist and hit him in the windpipe, fast and hard. He’ll be stunned and unable to breathe. Then move in closer to him and ram your knee deep into his groin. He’ll be paralyzed by the pain. He’ll recover, but the fight will be over.”

Then the cop asked me if I was right-handed or left-handed. When I replied left, he took my left hand in his and showed me how to hold a fist for maximum impact and effectiveness. He told me not to hesitate or I might telegraph my hostility to the other man and he might strike me first.

I looked up at my teacher as he was molding my fist into the correct position, and then he looked at me, and we both smiled self-consciously. It was as if we both realized how strange we would look to another cop entering the station.

My new ally stood up straight, and I quickly dropped my left hand to my side.  I was still very concerned, despite the unexpected humor of the moment.

“Do you think it will really work? I just have to do this.”

I wanted to be sure.

He held both of my shoulders in his large hands, sizing me up, his face both kind and understanding at the same time.

“If you move fast enough, he’ll go down like a rock. But remember: hit him hard so he won’t have a second chance.”

Then he released my shoulders and offered his hand to me. I shook it firmly, saying to him,

“Hey man, thank you. Really. I was stumped about what to do.”

He smiled at me, and with warmth in his voice he said,

“Good luck to you, fella. Now, go get that son-of-a-bitch.”

Then, like an afterthought, he looked down at his name tag pinned to his shirt and then back at me, with a curious expression and an amused smirk, remembering suddenly who we both were, and where we both were.

I looked up at him, and said, conspiratorially,

“Man, I was never here. I never met you.”

He silently nodded that he believed me. He wasn’t worried that I’d talk, if things went wrong. He watched me turn and walk down the white steps. When I got to those heavy glass doors, I turned back to see if he had gone, but he was still watching me. I smiled at him, in gratitude.

He smiled back.

He seemed satisfied to me, like he’d made a difference that day. He had helped someone…in real trouble.

I left the station, trudged back to my snow-covered delivery truck and left the downtown area for my home, thirty miles south of the city. I was ready now for the next day, whatever happened. I could do this, I said to myself. My mind was set.

The next morning, at just after nine when I knew that my sister’s north side school would be open, I found a parking spot, raced up the steps to the school’s front doors, and then stopped at the front desk. Then I asked the young secretary sitting there where my guy was, using the name that my father gave me. I told her that I was a friend of his, just coming to visit him.

She said she wasn’t sure, but told me to check the teacher’s lounge, since the man was a substitute teacher and he might be in there. When I left the office I began zipping through the halls, looking for my prey, steeled to my task, asking questions as I went along. Whenever I encountered a teacher, I described the man I wanted, and also enquired about where was the teacher’s lounge. I must have asked one person too many.

When I finally arrived at the door to the lounge in that big school, I saw the school’s principal, whom I recognized and knew somewhat from his visits to my South Side newsstand, whenever he was in Hyde Park. A large and normally friendly man, he was standing like he was planted there, blocking the lounge’s door. He had a couple of equally substantial men with him. By chance, like the cop in the police station, he too was black, but from a very different strata of society and a different worldview, too. But in some ways, when I think back on it, they were very similar men.  Strong men, but in very different ways.

He looked worried, confused, perplexed…all at the same time. He knew I was Bonnie’s brother. We weren’t strangers to each other. But I could plainly see that he wasn’t very happy to see me. I was putting him on the spot.

“Bob”, he asked me, almost beseechingly,

“Why are you here? What are you doing? You can’t just come in here and race around the halls…”

Then a pause…

“Why do you want to find this man you’re asking everyone about?”

So he already knew.

I was very set to do my deed. I didn’t want to stop and talk. But I knew I couldn’t get past the Principal and the other two guys. I had to tell him. The principal had never seen me this way. I could feel that he didn’t like what he saw in my face. Today, I wasn’t the cheerful and courteous guy he knew from the newsstand.

Robotically, I laid out the situation for him. I saw the surprise spread over the face’s of all three men. So, they didn’t know about this guy, either.

Then the principal filled the silence with his deep voice.

“Bob, you just can’t attack him. You should have come to me first. You know me. We can’t have battles in this school. I do understand your anger, but you know that I’m right.”

He stood there in front of me like the Berlin Wall. He wanted to help me, I could tell, but he also had to do his job. I was trouble for him.

He sighed a large sigh and pleaded with me to come back to his office with him to talk this thing over. He waved the other two men away. He could have called the police. They would have arrived at that school in seconds. But…he didn’t.

He seemed to know what to do, how to calm my fevered mind so I could let him help me. Let him stop me from completing my zealous mission. I allowed myself to follow him. When we entered his office, it was man to man.   Not a school principal to his teacher’s infuriated brother. I was not to be deterred, though. I told him,

“I’ve got to stop this guy. I have to. He can’t keep scaring my sister. You should have done something!”

I barked at him, accusing him.

But he stayed calm. He stayed firm. He was in control of himself, if not me. Then he grasped both of my arms, just as that sympathetic cop had done, as I stood there before him. He wanted me to see that he meant what he was going to say.

“Bob, you can’t do this. You can’t fight here. We will have to call the police if you keep on this way. Bonnie’s job will suffer if you hurt this man. Do you want to cause her more pain than she already has? You can’t do this. Not now. Not ever in this place. Do you see? Do you understand?”

I still wasn’t ready to quit. Not yet. I glared at him, in my exasperation.

“I have to stop him. I have to. Don’t you see? I…promised my father. I have to do this. Do you understand? This guy is a sick bastard.”

The principal kept his firm grasp of my arms, not to capture me, but to persuade me, that he wasn’t just talk. Part of me knew this. The part that wanted to escape this crazy situation. Still, only a part.

This man wanted me to cool down, to become reasonable. He didn’t want me to get in trouble with the law. He wanted to save me, from myself.

“Bob,” he said to me, with intensity in his voice,

We will stop him. I promise you that no one will bother Bonnie anymore. She will not be in any danger from anyone working here.”

My fevered anger was leaving me. I could finally hear him. I wanted to believe him. I couldn’t just forget about all this. He had to really mean what he said to me. I looked that principal dead in the eye and said,

“You swear? You will stop him? You’ll swear to me that…you…will do it? I promised my father. He…must…be…stopped.”

 Bonnie may not have been close to me. But I was close to her. Maybe she didn’t understand that. But that was nobody else’s business.

The principal released my arms and backed up a couple of steps. He stood there straight and strong and he said to me in a voice that I believed,

“I swear to you, Bob…no one…will bother your sister.”

I stared at him, and then, I looked down at the floor of his office. I felt the fever, the madness…leaving me. I saw the reality of all of it and I saw the position I was putting this good man in. I must listen to him. I must let him help me. I must stop all this…now.

I looked up at him and said, softly now,

“I believe you. I do.”

We shook hands and then held the handshake for some extra seconds. His hands were strong. I could feel his commitment. I let go of his hand. I believed him.

I turned to leave his office. He let me pass him. I saw that he believed me, as well, that I could control myself now.

I trusted this man. I believed that he would keep his word. I turned back to look at him, finally realizing the disaster he was preventing me from creating. I came to my senses and surrendered the fight. This man would do the right thing. I saw him as a civilizing force and he was exactly what I needed. I thanked him and then I said,

“I’m grateful that you stopped me. I understand now that it would have never worked. Please, watch over Bonnie. Don’t tell her I was here.”

The principal assured me that all that we had said to each other would remain between just us, and not be repeated. I turned away from him and as I left his school I realized, with some amazement, that the words we just exchanged in that principal’s office were almost a mirror image of my conversation with that cop, the day before.

It was so eerie; both of them really wanted to help me. I was lucky to find such good and kind men. This whole situation could have ended very differently.

I never told any of this to my sister. She would not have approved of me violently injecting myself into her life.

I called my father in California and told him that I had done all that I could to protect Bonnie. I told him that other men were looking out for her, as well.

I could tell from the relief in his voice, and from his tears, that he was satisfied that he had protected his daughter. He never asked me to do anything like that again in his life. We never spoke about it to each other, either.

Ever.

Until the day they both died, my father in 2000 at 87 and my sister from blood cancer in 2010 at sixty, the subject never came up and remained a secret because of that honest and decent principal who saved me from myself, besides assuming the protection of my pregnant sister upon himself.

That principal must have acted because that guy stopped bothering my sister. The principal called me to tell me that he had confronted the man. I don’t know what happened to the creepy son-of-a-bitch. Maybe he was fired.

I let it all go.

I’d done everything that I could do to help her.

It was over.

 

Epilogue (added in 2017)

What made me want to write and tell such a personal family story?

Well, frankly, a letter (today, 6/3/17) in which I responded to an old friend’s message, Herb Berman, in which I tried to further explain the strange motivations that drove me to record a unique event in my life. Below is part of that letter. My appreciation to Herb for causing me think deeper about emotionally difficult things, as he has so often in our past relationship:

The new ending to my ‘Sister’s Keeper’ story:

I wanted to show both my intense compulsion to please my father, to represent him in an immigrant tribal sort of way, and my rational awareness that what I was seeking to do was insane and illegal here in America, and that both existed within me at the same time.

That’s the story: that I was my own trap, until the two main characters–who both happened to black–gradually allowed me to disengage, and escape.

They were the reasons to write the story. One of them showed me the way to war, and the other one the way to peace.

Aside from the fact that I wrote it all down and that the two main and invisible Jewish characters, my father and sister, are dead, the actual series of incidence and real dialogue is in itself quite remarkable.  It doesn’t matter to me that I realize how the story may negatively depict me.

It is classic multi-ethnic Chicago story that deserves to be recorded and told. I won’t fictionalize my family’s history to make a story—no matter how bizarre—or me, look better.

 

 

This is a chapter in a new book I am writing, titled: A Refuge with Risks: Shabby Town

Filled with violence and romance, I think it will possibly help me move on from the loss of the love of my life, Joyce.  She told me toward the end of her life that I should keep busy, find something to do. Then, a kiss. Always a kiss.  I listened to her then, and now, and I am seeing if I can do this and keep my work–and punctuation–up to her high standards, the strong woman who began typing my stories in 2004.  Joy also promised to look after me. I expect she will keep her promise.  I miss that woman.

To contact me: robertmkatzman@gmail.com

Also, please feel free to leave comments below if you have something to say.  I read everything people write.

 

7 Comments »

Comment by Stephen Veenker

May 23, 2017 @ 5:42 pm

Bob,
this is a typically powerful story. You make the characters come alive. I knew some Chicago cops, and your story is totally believable. I am proud to have known you and Joyce and look forward to more chapters in your stories. Keep them coming. I know she approves.
Veenk

Comment by Charlie Newman

May 23, 2017 @ 5:45 pm

as always, amigo, fine stuff

Comment by Katrin Threet

May 23, 2017 @ 6:02 pm

I’ll be waiting for that book!

Comment by KatrinkaThreet

May 23, 2017 @ 6:02 pm

I’ll be waiting for that book!

Comment by Eileen Schroeder

May 23, 2017 @ 8:19 pm

really enjoyed your stories…you have a way of connecting

Comment by David Griesemer

May 28, 2017 @ 10:07 pm

As she was dying, June Carter Cash made her husband promise to keep working. When she was gone, Johnny released a Grammy-winning album. “Sister’s Keeper” is another great character study. But it has a different kind of ending than we’re accustomed to in Katzman stories. This one ends quietly and without certainty. Except for the certainty that a young Bob did finally choose the wiser path. And that’s enough. Especially since we know that Bob always values honesty above flourish. Like Johnny Cash, perhaps Bob senses that time is limited. He must do his best work every day. And that means verity. He cleaves to the truth, whether or not it matches a formula. Katzman scholars will be grateful.

Comment by Herb Berman

June 2, 2017 @ 8:58 pm

That’s a great story, Bob.

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