Saturday night is date night. It’s the most important night of the week. But if you’re an impoverished graduate student – perhaps the lowest form of life on the planet – then all nights are equal. And in our case, all nights are equally bad.
A lot of young people have plenty of time, but very little money. But most graduate students have neither money nor time. Years ago, when I was trying to complete my master’s degree, I received no student aid, had no scholarship, got no help from my parents, had no savings, and had recently been fired from my job. I was taking a full load of courses, studying for a language exam, and trying to write my master’s thesis.
I was living in a terribly run-down building on the Lower Eastside and spent more on roach spray than on food. My neighbors and I were so poor that when burglars broke into our apartments, they often took nothing. A woman in our building came home late one evening and found a note with a dollar bill. The note read, “Lady, you need this more than I do.”
I was collecting unemployment benefits, all of which went to pay my tuition. Once or twice a week, I worked off the books for a moving company. It was easy, if you didn’t mind climbing four flights of stairs with a refrigerator strapped to your back.
I was busy working on my thesis when there was a knock at my door. It was Willie, my friend Teddy’s older brother. There was a nice-looking woman with him.
Why could they possibly be paying me a visit? Of course, they couldn’t have called ahead since I didn’t have a phone.
Willie had worked for the New York City Board of Education for a few years and had managed to lose six or eight teaching jobs. I wasn’t very friendly with him, but he seemed like a pretty affable guy.
“To what do I owe the honor of this unexpected visit?” I asked as they brushed by me into my tiny apartment.
“Steve, this is my girlfriend, Judy. We’re here to take you out to eat. Let’s consider this a celebration.”
I felt torn. I really needed to work on my thesis, but someone in my financial position could hardly afford to turn down a free meal.
I grabbed my coat, and when we got outside, I asked where we would be dining.
“Long Island. It’s just a half-hour ride.”
I glanced at Judy and she shrugged.
“Willie, I hate to turn down a free meal, but can’t we eat around here? There are a million restaurants I can’t afford.”
“Thirty minutes. I eat there all the time. Great food!”
“But you live in Brooklyn.”
“I do just on weekends. But I have an apartment where I stay during the week. I have a teaching job on Long Island.”
OK, I figured. Free is free. So we got into his car and headed out to the Island.
The restaurant turned out to be a diner on Sunrise Highway. But it was certainly a good sign that the place was packed. In fact, it was so packed, that they couldn’t seat us at the same table. They had tables for two and tables for four, but none for three.
Willie had a solution. “Steve, why don’t you eat at the counter? And then, after we eat, I want to show you my apartment.”
“Willie,” said Judy, “We just dragged Steve all the way out here, and now we’re asking him to eat alone?”
“He doesn’t mind.”
“Willie, as long as you’re paying, I’ll overlook your rudeness.”
“You see, Judy, I told you he doesn’t mind.”
So I ate at the counter. As luck would have it, I met two very friendly women. They seemed to enjoy hearing how I had ended up at the diner, but. I wasn’t sure they believed me. Just as we were finishing our meal, Willie and Judy joined us.
“Steve, aren’t you going to introduce us to your friends?”
A minute later, Willie was alternately coming on to each of his new friends. I glanced at Judy. She smiled.
As soon as the women left, we went over to the cash register to pay. Willie actually tried to get out of paying for me, but I heard Judy whisper, “Don’t you dare!”
Our next stop was Willie’s apartment. It was in a tiny house just a few blocks from the diner. As we stood outside the front door, Willie cautioned us to be very, very quiet. The owners, an elderly couple, went to bed very early. They occupied the first floor; his apartment was on the second.
The front door opened into the living room. Just a few feet away was a staircase leading to Willie’s apartment. It looked like a ladder with thick wooden slats. The rest of the living room was actually visible through the ladder.
We tipped-toed up the steps, with Willie leading the way. He kept turning around to shush us. And then we were in his apartment, which was even smaller than mine, but in a better neighborhood.
“Want to hear some music?”
We both nodded. He turned on the radio, keeping the sound so low we could barely hear anything. About a minute later, there was a knock on his door. Willie slipped out to face the music, so to speak.
Judy and I heard a whispered conversation, but we couldn’t make out what was being said. Clearly, our visit was ending.
We went down the stairs, an,d as we were about to leave the house, Judy nudged me. Then she pointed to the back of the living room. There was an old man in a bathrobe sitting on an easy chair. He was staring straight ahead. Clearly, he was not a happy camper.
Willie was having a heated discussion with the wife. As Judy and I stepped outside, we heard Willie’s closing argument: “I didn’t know it was against the rules.”
Judy and I couldn’t hold it in any longer. We were both laughing hysterically. The more Willie demanded that we keep it down, the harder we laughed.
As we pulled away from the house, Willie wanted to know what was so funny.
“Your last line: it was perfect!” I explained.
“What last line?”
“I didn’t know it was against the rules.”
“Well, I don’t see why that’s so funny!”
Judy couldn’t contain herself any longer. “Willie, how could a house that small have rules?”
Willie didn’t laugh.
On the ride home, Judy would turn around and we would both start laughing. Then I realized that we weren’t heading back to the Lower Eastside. Willie mumbled something about taking Judy home.
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“Near you. I’m in Stuyvesant Town.”
“Willie, why are we in Brooklyn if you’re taking Judy home. She lives near me.”
“Are you deaf, Steve? I already said I’m taking Judy home.”
“Willie, what’s wrong with you?” asked Judy.
“We’re almost there. I have a big surprise!”
“Yeah, Willie,” I said. “Just don’t break any more rules.”
Willie didn’t say anything.
“Wait a second! Isn’t this where your parents live?” I had been to their house a few times, to hang out with Willie’s younger brother, Teddy. In fact, we used to play stickball on their block.
“Steve, you’re a regular Sherlock Holmes.”
We parked in front of their building. The family had a three-room apartment. I remembered that Willie and Teddy slept on a high-riser in the living room and their parents slept in the bedroom. The parents were in their sixties and had thick Yiddish accents.
While we were in the hallway, I looked at my watch. Shit! It was almost midnight. I had wasted the night. And tomorrow, I had to be at the mover’s at 8 am. What was I doing here?
Willie held the door for us. The apartment was dark. He turned on a light. Teddy was asleep on the high-riser. But between turning on the light and Willie’s bustling around, his brother woke up, quickly saw what was going on, and began laughing. This set off Judy and me. Even Willie joined in.
Then the bedroom door opened. Their mother emerged, wiping the sleep from her eyes.
“Mom! I want you to meet someone.”
“Steve — him I know already. The other one I never saw before!”
“Mom, I want you to meet Judy. We’re getting engaged. Wake up Pop!”
Engaged? Did he propose to her in the diner?
“Willie, haf you lust your mind? It’s zuh middle of zuh night and you burst in here vaking everyvun up? You’re such a meshuganah (Yiddish for crazy person).
Then we heard a voice from the bedroom. “Yetta, who’s dair? Is det Villie? Vut’s wrong mit him?”
By now, Judy and I were in hysterics.
“Vass da bunch of you drinking?” asked the mother.
Just then the father came out of the bedroom.
“Pop, I want to introduce you to the girl I’m going to marry.”
“Vut are you a crezy person? Get outta here!”
Meanwhile, Judy whispered to me that she was going to be sick. I took her by the arm and we went out into the street. She looked like she was going to throw up, but then she said she just needed some fresh air.
We waited for a few minutes, but Willie didn’t come out. So we walked to the subway and rode back to the city.
I put my arm around her and she rested her head on my shoulder. At that moment I realized how much I wanted to be with her.
“May I ask you a question?”
“How long have you been going out with Willie?”
“Actually, this was a blind date. Would you believe our plan was to have dinner in my neighborhood?”
“When we got outside, he said he was parked nearby, and that he knew a great place to eat on Long Island. He happened to mention that he had a friend who lived near me. I figured that if you came along, maybe we could get through the evening.”
“So where did this “This is my girlfriend business come from?”
“I think Willie has a movie playing in his head, and he’s starring in it.”
“Tell me about it!”
“Anyway Steve, this was the best date I’ve ever had.”