Thursday, March 24, 2016


Going Up in Smoke

A couple of years after he retired, my father joined the Kibitzers Club at the JEA, the Jewish community center in Savannah. My dictionary of Yiddish slang defines kibitzer as a “meddlesome spectator.” That seems a little unkind. The Savannah kibitzers were older Jewish men who gathered to discuss matters of local or world interest, to share stories of their families, or just to reminisce. My father was not a big joiner, but he seemed to enjoy kibitzing with his contemporaries.

My longtime friend Charles, who fittingly has lived in Charleston, South Carolina, all his life tells me that his synagogue has recently established an “Alter Kockers” club for kibitzers in his city. Now alter kocker, which loosely means “old crapper,” seems even more unkind a name than kibitzers. And, remarkably, the Charleston club includes both men and women. Why is that remarkable? In my experience, older Jewish men are not reluctant to label themselves as “old crappers,” but doesn't hold true for women. I am not even going to suggest a more suitable feminine appellation, but it would have to promise better smells and fewer references to aging.
In our younger days; I'm the bridegroom in the middle,
 and Charles is at the far right.
Recently I find myself as part of a small group of men in their mid to late 60s who meet every Tuesday morning for breakfast at a local diner/restaurant. There are 4 to 5 of us, depending on the week, and we have our own table set aside for us by the restaurant’s management. The staff doesn’t even need to provide us with menus since each of us almost always orders the same thing week after week. For a while I ordered an item impressively called “The Executive,” but now I’ve become more commonplace, getting by on two scrambled eggs, dry wheat toast, and well-done home fries, which I try to merely sample. (The Executive included a glass of orange juice and coffee or tea, but I don’t think I should have the caffeine or the sugar from the juice. Did I mention that I’m aging?) Our “founding member,” Gary, refers to us as the ROMEOs. I wish that meant we were known for our amorous capabilities, at least at one time, but it’s an acronym for Retired Old Men Eating Out. The name is not entirely correct. Most of us are retired lite. We no longer work full time but stay busy on a range of part-time projects. We’re usually free early on Tuesday morning, though, for “deep” discussions.

What do we talk about? Families, of course, including grandchildren for three of us. (I’m still waiting.) And politics. And the local synagogue to which each of us currently or at one time belonged. And medical conditions or tests. (I did mention that we’re aging.) Last week’s topic was a little unusual; it blended health and nostalgia. Bruce and I talked longingly about our years as pipe smokers, and Martin described how much he had formerly enjoyed cigars. Now, I know some amateur psychologists see pipes or cigars as phallic symbols, but we see them as symbols of intellectualism or former glory or coolness. We all realize that it’s no longer cool and was never healthful to smoke tobacco (and I say with a tinge of embarrassment that I never smoked anything but tobacco in even my “wayward” days and then only a pipe and not cigarettes), but there was a time when sitting at the typewriter or keyboard with a clouds of pipe smoke circling over my head felt intellectually stimulating. There is a satisfying ritual to pipe smoking that transcends the smoke or the mess. And I can still remember registering my own personal blend of tobacco in the small store in Ridgewood. That seems a little cool, doesn’t it?
Here I am looking young and intellectual.
Note the presence of much hair and a pipe.
We all stopped smoking many years ago, most likely for the same reasons, and I have no intention of ever going back. But I still have one of my old favorite pipes around, stored in a secret place in my house. I found it the other day, brought it out for a quick memory flash, and then put it back. It really doesn’t fit in my life any more. Somehow, I have become old enough to be a kibitzer or an alter kocker or a ROMEO but too old to be a pipe smoker. How did this happen?  

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