Adam Unrehearsed
by Don Futterman

Published: 2023-11-14T00:0
Hardcover : 320 pages
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In the vein of The Chosen, Catcher in the Rye,and The Kite Runner comes Adam Unrehearsed, a “hilarious, deeply moving, coming-of-age comedy” (Yossi Klein Halevi).

From the moment he’s mugged on the subway home from Bat Day at Yankee Stadium, things go wrong for twelve-year-old ...

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In the vein of The Chosen, Catcher in the Rye,and The Kite Runner comes Adam Unrehearsed, a “hilarious, deeply moving, coming-of-age comedy” (Yossi Klein Halevi).

From the moment he’s mugged on the subway home from Bat Day at Yankee Stadium, things go wrong for twelve-year-old Adam Miller. He is in the Special Program for brainy kids, but his new junior high is on triple shift. When he gets on the wrong side of several gangs and needs them most, his friends disappear. As if that’s not enough, Adam discovers that his older brother has become a Zionist militant, his synagogue is repeatedly vandalized, and despite Adam’s “skinny voice,” his crazy new Cantor has grandiose plans for his Bar Mitzvah. Meanwhile, Adam dreams of his summer camp girlfriend in far off New Rochelle, but he’s too shy to pick up the phone. He even fails at shoplifting.

Bewildered and alone, Adam finds his only solace onstage, where he discovers the power of theater to bridge social divides. As he learns to stand out and stand up for himself, friends appear in the most unexpected places and Adam Miller discovers his own voice.

Adam Unrehearsed is a story of friendship, betrayal, life, death, and acting.

Colum McCann called it “comical…lyrical…menacing…gritty…tender…compassionate and propulsive.” Adam Unrehearsed will do for Flushing what Philip Roth did for Newark. Set in New York in 1970, just as American Jewry is coming of age, this is the next generation of great American Jewish fiction.

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Chapter 1

Mr. Beck informed the seventh-grade Two-Year SP class that they would no longer be coddled. Elementary school was behind them, and he was going to make their brains burst. Like his classmates, Adam had never had a male teacher before, and Mr. Beck was fierce.

Adam’s new school was on triple shift, squeezing 1,800 junior high students into a building built for less than half that number—the result of citywide budget cuts and miserable district planning. The school song for JHS 189 touted the number of the school rather than its actual name—the bureaucratic mentality made verse.

Adam skittered through the crowds in the endless dimly lit halls to find his next class during the three-minute breaks. These strangers had no idea that Adam Miller had been student organization president of PS 24 less than nine weeks before, that he had made a speech at graduation, or that his family had moved over the summer while he was away at camp, where, much to his own astonishment, he had a girlfriend.

“Listen, you SP brainiacs. You are goddamned lucky to be born in this part of the twentieth century, because we are going to conquer space in your lifetime. That’s if we can convince those fools in Washington not to cut NASA’s budget so they can help the poor, as if the poor would ever see a dime from that money. You with me? Dammit, you’re not.”

Mr. Beck wiped the sweat from his rubbery features, transferring his perspiration in one swipe to his pants leg. Adam Miller was thrilled to overhear the thoughts of an adult, of a teacher, but most of the class had no idea what Mr. Beck was talking about, instantly wrong-footed by their own—apparently inexcusable—ignorance.

Mr. Beck turned to the blackboard, chalk held high, poised to begin, but then stopped to face them again.

“You’ll be here only two years, but listen up: this is the opposite of a free ride. You’re going to work harder than anyone else in this building. Science is politics, science is life. Science is the future!” Mr. Beck roared. “Here we go.”

Adam was revved up, ready to love science and head into space.

But this momentum quickly dissipated during the rest of the day. Size-placing had positioned Adam in the first row throughout elementary school, but seating was random in junior high. The teachers used charts, with student names inscribed in boxes representing their assigned places. Adam had to make his own chart to remember where to sit from one class to the next. He was learning the teachers, but they weren’t learning him. They never heard his voice.

Outside class, Adam felt lost in time and space as he tried to grasp the layout of this new maze. The main building was a long and rectangular box of red bricks, together forming a single colossal brick. The brick had two centers—the lunchroom and the auditorium—but there was no center to his day. One forty-two-minute lesson followed another in a dozen different subjects and just as many rooms, as chaotic as Adam’s loose-leaf binder struggling to contain it all, the lick-on reinforcements clinging to the pages to keep them between the subject dividers.

The gymnasium was in a separate space-age capsule, bathroom-tiled in bright teal and with metal latticework around the windows that suggested prison bars, designed to keep thieves out, and in general, to ward off invasion. There was a massive schoolyard outside, but no basketball courts, no handball walls, no fountains, no benches, no monkey bars, nothing that invited any sort of organized fun. And nothing separated the yard from the streets of Flushing except an eight-foot-high chain-link fence. The ninth-grade boys had beards and smoked; the ninth-grade girls wore makeup and smoked.

In the third week, Mr. Beck was teaching about energy, and Adam decided to open his mouth no matter what.

“Name the different forms of energy.”

Adam had no clue.

“Electricity,” volunteered the tall Korean girl, Elizabeth Kim.

“Excellent answer!” boomed Mr. Beck. He wrote it on the board in a sloppy cursive that sloped precipitously downhill and that could not have been more different than the rounded letters and ruler-straight lines of Adam’s elementary schoolmarms.

“Magnetism,” offered Peter Hahn, the smartest kid in the class.

“Magnetism is cor-rect!” Mr. Beck announced, scribbling the word below electricity.

“Heat,” jumped in Valerie Caruso, an Italian girl whose purple eyes made Adam twitch.

“Absolutely right!”

Aha! Adam’s hand shot up.

“Adam Miller,” Mr. Beck called, matching his location with his box chart.

“Cold,” Adam offered, breathless already, his eardrums pounding.

“Wrong!” Mr. Beck accused. “Cold is not a form of energy. Cold is the absence of heat.”

Stupid stupid stupid stupid! How could I say something that I wasn’t absolutely sure was correct?

“Class, remember that!” Mr. Beck went on. “Energy is electricity and heat is energy, but…”

Stupid stupid stupid.

“Cold is the absence of energy! And energy is everything.”

Stupid cold. Not everything. Absence of everything…smart.

“The stuff we are made of, the mass of our bodies, us—that stuff can be converted into energy. Energy is stuff times the speed of light times the speed of light. Einstein figured that out, and we made the atomic bomb and won goddamned World War Two. And Einstein wasn’t in the Two-Year SP.”

Stupid cold stupid Einstein stupid Two-Year SP. Cold equals absence of energy.

“Listen to me good. You are the best and the brightest in this school. Science must be your vocation because science is our future!”

The best and the brightest! They were gifted and also kept separate from the rest of the school, except for gym, where they were most vulnerable. Their accelerated program would clear space in New York’s overcrowded schools while sparing them the superfluous eighth-grade curriculum.

“We cured polio because of science! We landed on the moon because of science!”

Yes. Adam had talked about the moon landing on the PA system as GO president at PS 24 before he was cold and stupid.

“You don’t want to end up as a garbageman.”

No, Adam didn’t, but didn’t Mr. Beck know that Ryan’s father was a garbageman? Ryan’s face zapped down to his desk.

Of course Mr. Beck didn’t know. Ryan was a name in a box. And now he was the stupid kid crying in science class sitting in front of the stupid kid who thought cold was a form of energy who would never be a scientist.

“What the hell’s the matter with him?”

Adam was desperate to explain, but he had spoken enough for one day. Everybody from PS 24 knew exactly why Ryan was sobbing, but nobody was going to say it.

“You’re going to have to toughen up if you’re going to survive here,” Mr. Beck warned them.

Toughen up?

Mr. Beck was right about that.

There was a war going on in the corridors between a black gang and rival white gangs. Busloads of students arrived from the South Bronx every day, most of them black, supposedly to be integrated into the school. But in practice, they were shunted into the Opportunity Classes—the OC—to mingle with a few local underachievers.

The Italians called the blacks the N-word, a word outlawed in Adam’s house on pain of a literal mouthwash with bar soap. The blacks called the Italians the G-word and the W-word, insults Adam had never heard before, either separately or together.

On the same floor as the lunchroom, there was a black bathroom and an Italian bathroom—the hitters’ bathroom—each one off-limits to anybody else without an escort, except during the occasional hiatus when Mr. Vogel would clear the smokers out of the bathrooms and the toilets would be up for grabs for twenty minutes. There was no Jewish bathroom or Japanese bathroom or Chinese bathroom or Korean bathroom. In desperation, Adam sometimes waded through the smoke into the Italian bathroom, preferably with Ryan—Ryan was Italian despite his Irish moniker—or, in an emergency, on his own. At worst he’d get bumped into a wall or sink. The black bathroom absolutely required Curtis or Derek, but they were not in the SP and Adam only saw them in gym class. Kevin Mathis was in the SP, but he was not from PS 24 and Adam had only just met him.

The kids from the Bronx panhandled during lunch, usually asking for “a dime, spare change for me,” but sometimes reaching for your pockets, which made the first weeks hair-raising. Adam got smart fast—sorry, man, no money—pivoting to the brown paper bag holding his daily salami sandwich wrapped in aluminum foil, and his perennial dessert, a Red Delicious apple (never a McIntosh). Adam pitied Dennis, who forked over change day after day under no greater threat than a glower. He’d seen boys like Dennis have their lunch money taken by force in the hallway.

Time to toughen up indeed.

“Oh for crying out loud,” Mr. Beck said to Ryan in front of the class, after Takashi Moto whispered the truth to him. “Don’t take it personally, kid. It was only a goddamned metaphor.”

Except it wasn’t. Adam’s parents were teachers, and his father had been a principal for a year before the teachers’ strike and his voluntary demotion, and that was still better than being a garbageman. They all knew that.

Chapter 2

They were at Yankee Stadium on Bat Day, on their own, all the way from Flushing.

It was summer. Transistor radios were blasting, hot dogs boiling, the heat so ferociously thick and humid that Adam hummed the melody of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” to keep himself cool until it was his turn at the ticket window.

“No grown-up, no bats,” the man mumbled from his cage, answering a question Adam hadn’t asked. His sideburns ran so far down, his face was behind bars. He pointed to a huge sign: Bats given to the first 10,000 guests 14 and under, accompanied by an adult. He slid the ticket envelope across the counter.

“Them’s the rules. Next.”

It was the first foray of Adam’s bar mitzvah year, and he was about to strike out.

Why had he insisted on going to the Yankees game on his own? “I’m a Yankee fan,” he’d declared, rejecting his father’s plea that they watch the Mets at Shea instead of taking on the wilds of the Bronx. “Nothing will happen.”

Adam had to fix this and quickly. He needed an adult, any adult. He stepped back from the booth, examined the entrance line, trying to locate a man who could pass for his father, their father, the father of any one of the four boys.

“What are you doing?” asked Jason Boyer, Adam’s best friend.

Adam pointed at the sign.

“Holy shit!” Jason said.

“This sucks,” agreed Stu.

“Yeah,” said Dennis, attempting to be agreeable with no idea what he was agreeing to.

Stu was Jason’s buddy, a second-string friend whom Adam rarely met on his own. Poor Dennis was nobody’s pal. He had asked to join the pilgrimage to Yankee Stadium at the bar mitzvah orientation. Adam had been standing next to his mother at the time—since she’d joined the Sisterhood, she practically lived at Temple Gates of Hope—and her maternal glare made it clear Adam could not say no. Jason had not forgiven Adam for tainting their trip with an interloper, especially one Jason had dubbed “a weaselly chickenshit.”

Adam spotted a family of blond humans, twins and dad with sun-bleached hair and Sinclair dinosaur hats leftover from the 1964–65 World’s Fair. But when the twins noticed Adam giving them the once-over, they slinked away.

Behind them was a Puerto Rican family, taking pictures of themselves holding a Mickey Mantle bobblehead with their Polaroid camera. Also. Not. Them.

A man with a leisure suit. Maybe. But a leisure suit at a baseball game?

“You kids need tickets?”

The scalper looked like two spherical blobs, beach-ball head and medicine-ball belly, both drooping, dripping insanely with sweat. He wore a Yankee hat that was far too small for his head.

“Twelve bucks,” he said. “Field box.”

“No, thank you,” Adam replied curtly. He clutched his own field-level tickets inside a fist buried as deeply in his pocket as it was possible to dig. Four dollars each.

“You selling?” he asked. “I’ll give ya two bucks apiece.”

“Not selling,” Adam snarled, calculating the scalper’s profit margin, but then Adam turned nice. “Hey, how about if you take us in?”

Adam pointed at the sign.

“Deal,” he said. “Ten bucks.”

“Two,” Adam offered.

The scalper laughed.

“I’ll take you in,” said a voice behind the boys. Old, gaunt, red-faced, stubbled-cheekbones threatening to emerge through the skin, beer breath—but he was offering.

“All right, five bucks,” the scalper countered.

“For free,” said Grizzle. “Come on, boys.”

“Thanks,” Adam said. “Deal’s off,” he told the scalper.

There were two crewcuts behind the turnstile, chewing toothpicks, one taking tickets, the other dragging bats out of long cardboard boxes stacked on their sides. Adam could feel in the rectitude of his middle-class bones that they were not going to hand over their lumber.

Grizzle said, “Give me your tickets.”

Adam hesitated. Grizzle didn’t look fast, but suppose he wanted to steal their tickets and run away, or claim they were his, or work some scam Adam couldn’t imagine?

Adam’s father would palm a five-dollar bill and shake hands with Mr. Bats, but Adam dared not risk such an adult move. Of course, if his father had been there, they wouldn’t be having this problem. The tickets were handed over and handed over again.

The bat man counted out four bats. The ticket-taker grouped the tickets together to rip off the stubs, when he noticed that Grizzle had a bleacher seat. Mr. Turnstile put his hand up. “How come you’re not sitting together?”

Grizzle worked his mouth several different ways, but no words came out. The bat man shifted the bats away from the boys.

“You’re embarrassing my grandfather,” Jason rallied.

“That’s not your grandfather,” Dennis said. Stu punched him so hard, Dennis moaned.

Grizzle found his voice. “They’re good kids.”

Looks were exchanged among the three men, and the decision was made silently at altitude. They handed over the bats.

“No trouble, boys.”

They were practiced in reassuring authority, and all four Yessir’ed with vigor. They had no plans to take a swing at anybody.

“How about a drink, lads?” Grizzle asked, once inside.

“Sure,” Adam answered, not knowing exactly what Grizzle meant.

“A beer costs a dollar fifty,” Stu explained, privy to knowledge that eluded the others. They fished in their pockets, but Dennis didn’t move, so Adam put in enough to cover Dennis. They were relieved when Grizzle left them.

Emerging from the gray concrete tunnel, they saw the field—the endless green, the giant, leaping blue sky. The air was different inside Yankee Stadium, crisp and electric and clear. Adam felt like jumping but settled for going up on his toes a few times, and then sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” with such vigor Jason and Stu laughed at him.

At last, the game began. When a Yankee made contact, all four boys popped out of their seats like the morning toast, and whenever the ball dropped in safely, their voices joined the transcendent roar. They stopped every concessionaire. Adam, Jason, and Stu downed two hot dogs each, along with Cracker Jacks, Coca-Cola and ice cream. Not until they finished the ice cream did Adam ask Dennis why he wasn’t eating.

“My stomach hurts,” Dennis mumbled.

Not likely, Adam thought, cursing himself for not having noticed sooner. Adam drew on the emergency fiver his father had stuck in his bus pass case and bought two bags of peanuts. Dennis devoured his like a starving man.

But the Yankees went comatose, striking out on awkward swings and falling one run behind. Dennis insisted the Yankees would be eliminated from Series contention by mid-September. He was right, of course, the numbers proved it, but why was he talking?

Jason gave Dennis a murderous look, then expanded the glower to include Adam, just as Thurman Munson hit a foul ball two inches over Dennis’s head, as if Munson could also hear and wanted to silence Dennis for good. Adam wished he had brought his glove. A Munson memento—wow! That would have been something.

To shut him up, Adam offered to teach Dennis how to keep score, which Dennis took to compulsively. Stu proclaimed that “scoring is a total waste of time,” since it had no impact on the game. Adam decided to avoid an argument and focused instead on supervising Dennis filling in his scorecard, a detailed record that would allow them to relive the game in detail at home. (Adam kept his small stack in his closet, although he never looked at the scorecards again.)

That’s when Adam discovered that Dennis had never been to a baseball game, that his parents were Holocaust survivors and knew nothing of baseball. No wonder no extra money. How would they know they sell food at a baseball game? This terrible deprivation made Adam soften toward Dennis while also seeming to confirm Jason’s worst suspicions.

As the bottom of the ninth loomed, the majestic voice of Bob Sheppard ordered them to “Stand up and cheer for your 1970 New York Yankees! Let’s see those bats!” The boys waved theirs wildly at the TV cameras, flaunting their weapons like cavemen. This revived them and must have also revived the team, because Horace Clarke walked—“a walk’s as good as hit…”—passing the bat to Bobby Murcer. When Murcer smacked a two-run home run to win the game, forty thousand people flew out of their seats and raised their cheers to the heavens.

“Did you see that?” Adam screamed.

“Did you see that?” his friends echoed.

Adam had seen it all right, tracking the ball cleanly from the loud crack until it landed in the left-field bleachers. The boys bounced up and down as the stands emptied around them, slapping each other five, reliving the home run again and again, glorying in the astonishing fact of their presence to witness this comeback.

The boys headed to Flushing with chests as full as their stomachs. Adam’s heart was beating against his ribs, his body thrumming inside and out. Every passenger was adorned with pinstripes or caps with the entwined N and Y, flying high from the victory. Adam whispered to Dennis that he would give him the scorecard as a present—they had each completed half, when Jason and Stu were not looking.

At Grand Central, they switched to the Flushing-bound 7 train, snagging the last seats as they downshifted from raucous Yankees boosters to weekenders completing their Manhattan Sunday on the local. The subway screech reached a crescendo, metallic yelps became shrieks as the train ground to a noisy stop between stations. The very slight breeze from the open windows vanished. A raspy delay announcement made the obvious official, and a groan rose as engines were shut down and their car became a sweatbox.

Exhilaration gave way to exhaustion as their voices dried up. Cigarette smoke choked their throats, as if drifting out of the ads for Lucky Strikes in the fitted glass cases. Adam tried to distract himself by deciphering the brush strokes of graffiti swirling over the walls, benches, ceiling, and windows. The train finally jerked into motion, and the boys stared silently at the route line, counting down the twenty stops until Main Street Flushing.

And then Jason told a joke that made Dennis laugh so hard snot flew out of his nostrils, hitting a man standing near them on his left buttock, where it stuck. They boys could not look at the snot, the buttock, or each other, in pain from trying to suppress the laughter. The cramps in Adam’s cheek muscles exploded just as the 7 stopped at Queensborough Plaza.

Twenty teenagers rushed into the car at once, taking it over, commandeering the standing space, knocking into each other with wild joy.

“Check this out!” one of them yelled, grabbing the silver pole with one hand and flinging his body around at high speed. Another did pull-ups from the leather straps, banging into seated passengers, puncturing their newspaper shields, daring them to complain. A child dropped the Daily News comics section on the floor but was afraid to retrieve it. One of the teenagers snatched it up and read two panels of Dondi out loud before losing interest. He crumpled it up and dropped the wad on the kid’s lap.

The last gasps of Adam’s laughter attracted their attention, and when they moved in a pack toward Adam and his friends, they squeezed out their joy like a dying tube of toothpaste. They were older, years older, giants, black. They acted friendly, a pose, obvious even to Dennis, or perhaps most obvious to Dennis, his fear sensors so finely attuned. Adam was already afraid, wished his father had come, or his brother, wished his black friends had joined them—Curtis and Derek were both tall, and if they had been with them, Adam thought, they would have somehow, magically, redirected this gang away. He had seen such threats diverted before—on buses, in Kissena Park—but he didn’t understand how it worked, couldn’t do it without them.

The gang forced the boys to make room so they could sit between them, separating Adam from Jason, Adam from Dennis. Adam tried to make eye contact with the adults seated nearby, trusting them instinctively, but the grown-ups hid behind their tabloids, fished for objects in their shopping bags.

Stu played it cool: “Yeah, we went to the game, no big deal, Yankees won.” Dennis prattled that we were in a bar mitzvah group together. Idiot, Adam thought, advertising that they were Jewish. Jason’s thin lips disappeared.

“Lemme see that,” one of them ordered, motioning toward Adam’s bat. Adam hesitated, imagined comic book heroics—SMACK! KRAK!—but there were so many of them, and how could he hit a person?

Adam handed his bat over, Jason and Stu followed, Dennis conceding last, as if he’d also had some thought of protecting himself but didn’t know how.

The bats were passed from one teenager to another. Adam hoped that cooperation would appease them, encourage them to turn their attention elsewhere. But having sized up their victims and relieved them of their weapons, the friendly flirting ended.

A jumpy youth put his face up to Adam’s. Adam’s black friends were growing Afros, but this boy’s hair was shaved close to his head, so Adam guessed he must have crazy strict parents. The bags under his eyes were deep-set creases, crevices. Adam felt his breath, heard his mumbling. It took a while until Adam could make out the words, words he was repeating over and over.

“Jew-ball bastard,” he muttered, “Jew-ball bastard.”

Adam wasn’t sure he’d heard it right. Adam concentrated on the boy’s mouth. There it was, coming at him, “Jew-ball bastard,” the volume increasing as he moved his head closer. Adam knew anti-Semitic slurs like Hymie and kike, but he’d never heard one spoken aloud and never this odd version.

“What’d you say?” Adam asked, shock exceeding his fear.

“Jew-ball bastard,” he said a little louder, as if those were the only words he knew in the English language. It wasn’t clear if this was in answer to Adam’s question or simply the next beat of his steady hum. Adam couldn’t know that the words meant little to the youth, they were simply a melody to him, a refrain triggered by Dennis, by “synagogue.” Just another word connected to Jews that he knew little about.

The gang’s leader had cutoff sleeves. He grabbed Adam’s scorecard, plucked out the insert—nine innings of careful documentation on two pages of card stock. Adam peeped “Hey!” at the same time as Dennis, already sharing ownership and mourning their loss. The leader ripped the scorecard into small pieces while his two friends placed their arms across Adam’s chest to keep him from lunging for it.

Their Yankee victory swept the subway floor.

Sleeveless signaled Adam to stand while Jew-ball breathed his mantra into Adam’s ear. They led Adam out of the car, two more joining the escort, through the cowering riders and across the gangplank, a rush of hot wind, putrid outside air, and into the next car. The car was empty, the last car always left empty now, as passengers sought safety in numbers.

Adam braced himself. He had wrestled frequently with his brother but knew nothing about street fighting. It didn’t take long. Jew-ball struck Adam in the mouth. Adam tasted blood.

“Shut the fuck up,” Jew-ball said. It was so startling that Adam swallowed his objection that he hadn’t said a thing. Jew-ball seemed angry that Adam was thinking.

“Jew-ball bastard,” the teen hummed as he went through Adam’s pockets. Adam had been drilled from age zero to give muggers whatever money he had, a standard survival tactic in New York City. Money can be replaced. All that matters is that you don’t get hurt.

Jew-ball took out Adam’s bus pass, as Adam watched him remove each of the four dollars left from his emergency reserves. They escorted Adam back across the bridge in the clattering outdoor heat. The sun, the blood, the fear, the shock. They weaved through the standing passengers and returned Adam to his seat between two jeering goons.

Adam was dazed. The grown-up world had abandoned him. Mortified and furious, he felt irreparably severed from the rules he knew.

He watched his friends disappear one by one for the shakedown in the next car. He couldn’t help seeing the tears on Jason’s cheeks when he returned, and when Jason turned away from Adam, Adam turned away as well.

They would be rougher with Dennis. He wore glasses, radiated vulnerability, anxiety loss, tragedy. Hit me, Dennis’s very being seemed to say.

“I can’t get hurt,” Dennis hissed.

Adam imagined Dennis’s parents with their refugee clothing and thick accents, not knowing what a baseball game was, teaching Dennis to be scared of everything and everyone. They would probably never let Dennis leave the house again. Maybe they were right to be afraid.

Adam stood up. “Leave him alone!”

Jew-ball pulled Adam down harshly, angry at himself for having relaxed his guard. He pressed something into Adam’s side. A switchblade? Maybe. Adam knew nothing about knives. Adam wanted to punch Jew-ball in the face. He wouldn’t have minded just then if someone had killed him.

And then someone did step forward. A man pushed two of the teens aside and took their spot in the middle of the car. He was thickset, a wide face with a prominent, square chin, dressed in a black suit, a white shirt but no tie. He had a black hat, pushed back, the antithesis of debonair.

“What you are doing to those kids?!!” he yelled in a thick accent.

Yelled? His voice was a sonic boom, like he had a bullhorn in his throat. The man pulled Dennis free, shoving him back to his seat as Dennis yelped in fear.

The gang laughed at him. The man turned to the other passengers, but they found their Sunday sections and purses, searched the floor for gum.

The gang leader told the man to “Get the fuck off this train.” But at the next stop, the man positioned himself in the doorway, letting the doors bang into him and rebound open.

“POLICE!” his grand voice rang out, tolling over the hisses and creaks of the subway. “COME NOW!”

Grating gutturals from the subway speakers: “Stand clear glahglahglahglah.”

The doors did an impotent stutter step, the rubber bumpers striking the man, sliding open again. The doors could not close, and the train could not move.

A standoff.

The passengers grumbled, irritated. Adam hated these appallingly passive adults, but who would want to take on the gang? Or the man in black?

A transit policeman appeared at last in the car. Their defender stepped inside, and the doors snapped shut in satisfaction. The train started moving.

“What you are waiting for?” the avenger blared. “Arrest the hooligan robbers!”

The transit cop considered his options, studying the man, glancing at Adam and the boys or out the window, but not at the gang. Finally, the officer turned to the leader of the gang, and said, “Are you bothering these kids?”

“Got no business with you.”

“They take them in the next car, first one, then another one,” screamed the man. “They take money. They tear up book! That book belong to that boy.”

He pointed at Adam. Scraps of scorecard were dispersed across half the car, the cover sucked against the crack in the door opposite.

The officer looked at Adam too.

“That your book?”

“Yes, sir,” Adam said. “It was.”

The officer’s cheek was pulsing.

“You ought to clean that up before you get off the train.”


Adam felt his stomach shrivel into his groin.

The redeemer became irate. “Why you do nothing? You man or chicken?”

The other passengers abandoned their pose of indifference at last, watched the transit cop chewing his lips, waiting to see what he would do. Just as the doors began to close, the transit cop jumped backward onto the platform, brushing the door edge, but not enough to trigger the open mechanism. The subway rumbled on without him.

“Chickenshit!” Sleeveless howled, his pals jeered him on, the gang a single organism, rippling with mockery and bravado.

Adam couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.

“Police not do nothing but I WILL NOT ALLOW!” roared their protector. The snickering stopped. This man had crossed a threshold of crazy, all veins and popping eyeballs. He made the gang members nervous, made Sleeveless nervous. He made Adam nervous.

“What they take? Tell me!”

Jason, Stu, Adam stayed silent. Dennis chomped the words in his mouth like gum, but never blew a bubble. He cleaned his glasses, cleaned them again. Adam wanted to hit Dennis himself.

“They take your book?” the avenger said to Adam.

“Yes,” Adam said. He felt pressure from his side.


Money can be replaced. Give them your money.

“We didn’t take no money.”

“That’s a lie.” It was out of Adam’s mouth before his brain could calculate the odds.

“You give back money.”

“Fuck you, old man!”

Three of them came closer, emboldened by the F-word. Adam had a feeling he didn’t recognize—that he no longer cared what would happen to him. He wouldn’t be back at Yankee Stadium for a long time anyway, and he knew what he wanted now.

“Those are our bats,” Adam said.

It was as if the man grew in size, in volume. His legs spread and his voiced filled the entire car.


With that blast, every cowardly tiny shivering shriveling soul in the subway car lifted their faces to the guardian. Adam stopped breathing. The train turned a corner, threw everyone sideways, screeched so awfully Adam felt it in his teeth.

Instead of closing in to smash the man, to shatter his black suit into blood and bone, they meekly handed over the bats. The four boys said thanks, politeness bred into their bones, and didn’t try to smash their skulls.

“Stay back!” the man ordered the gang. “Back! We getting off. You stand there!”

The train pulled into 111th Street. The doors opened with a deep sigh, as if the 7 had also had enough.

Adam squeezed the handle of his bat with all his strength as he pulled away from Jew-ball, slipped under their protector’s arm, making him his shield. Stu, Dennis, and Jason moved to Adam’s side.

“Good,” the man said, once they were standing on the platform and the train rumbled on. “You get bats.” He put his arm on Adam’s shoulder.

“We should have fought them,” Stu said. “If my brothers were here…”

If our brothers, our tall friends, our black friends, our fathers…

“Our money…” Jason blurted out.

“I knew it!” the man exploded, “they do steal your money!”

Adam pretended he was not in tears. He wished their guardian angel would take him to his parents, would disappear, would make it not real.

On the next train, they rode in silence to Willets Point-Shea Stadium, where Mets fans filled the car. Adam scanned the new passengers for their assailants, but they didn’t appear. They’d probably hopped the return train to Queensborough Plaza to find new victims. The man rode to the end of line with the boys, followed them up the stairs to Main Street.

“Which one be Roosevelt Avenue?”

He said it Roosie-velt, which made Stu crack up, but Adam was not able to laugh yet, nor were Jason or Dennis.

“You’re on it,” Adam said, and pointed. He knew the street well. Temple Gates of Hope was three blocks away.

“You are safe,” the man declared. “They not coming back. Goodbye. Good luck.” He headed off, a bull strapped into a black suit.

Dennis rushed for a pay phone, called his parents, reported his entire disastrous day, making his anxious parents terrified. As soon as he hung up, he started running home without another word. Stu and Jason headed off to Carlyle Towers, the apartment complex across from Adam’s old house.

Stupid Dennis going off like that, they could have taken the bus together. Adam’s stomach flipped each time he saw a black teenager. Not him. Not them. Revenge fantasies abounded.

He was ashamed to tell his parents what had happened, but Adam was strangely silent for a post-Yankees victory and eventually the story came out. His parents briefly considered calling the police but concluded that would be a meaningless exercise. Adam’s father said they were right to have moved to a safer neighborhood, a side comment meant for Mrs. Miller, which made Adam jerk.

This had nothing to do with where we live. This happened on the subway in the city.

His parents moved off the sore subject, both extolling the stranger.

“Did you ask his name?”

“No.” But that man was crazy, Adam thought. And then, finally, he told them he had lost his four dollars. Even with the stranger’s help, he couldn’t get it back. Adam began to cry.

“It’s just money. We can replace it. We can replace it right now. You didn’t get hurt, that’s what’s important.”

Why? Why is that what’s important?

Mr. Miller handed Adam a fresh five-dollar bill.

“It was only four dollars,” Adam mumbled.

“Take it. Keep it with your bus pass.”

Adam’s mouth didn’t sting, but hadn’t he been hurt? It wasn’t the money that caused the hole inside him.

Adam didn’t tell them about Jew-ball bastard. The phrase echoed in his mind long into the night. Bastard was clear enough—but what was a Jew-ball? A ball made out of Jews? A ball Jews played with?

Adam didn’t know that for Jew-ball, whom Adam would never see again, taking Adam’s pocket money and dignity was the least dangerous thing he would do all week, that belowground crime was exploding, that the city had given up on keeping subways clean or safe, that nothing and no one could untangle the weird dance of solidarity and resentment and condescension and anger between blacks and Jews and whites in New York City in 1970, and that for Jew-ball, it was just a melody. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the author:

1. Adam Unrehearsed tells of old friendships unraveling and new friendships forming. What surprised you most about Adam and his friends? How does this compare to your own experiences of childhood friendships?

2. How does Adam’s relationship differ with each of his mentor figures; the Cantor, Mr. Selenko, Seth, Mr. Miller? How do these shape Adam’s emerging identity and his sense of self? What does he take from each? What does he reject?

3. The members of the Miller family have different attitudes toward their personal sense of belonging and the Jewish community’s feeling of being secure and accepted in American society. How do these differ from one another and why? How does their experience compare to that other minorities and immigrant groups? How do the early 70s compare to today?

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