Bonsche SchweigMichael IngallI ENTERED THE PROGRESS NOTE IN PAUL'S CHART even before he came in..."unchanged." Paul never changed. He always wore his faded parka, a coat for all seasons, reeking of stale cigarette smoke. He had a vacant dull stare, barely making eye contact, even when he looked at you. "How are things, Paul?" I asked, knowing that the answer would always be a reassuring "Fine," uttered without feeling through toothless gums and flapping lips. He sounded like an imitation of Dustin Hoffman doing "Rainman." A gray stubble marked his cheeks, punctuated with the raw bloody stigmata left by dull razor blades. Once I gave him an old Norelco, but he never used it.
On the surface, Paul was not terribly different from many other patients in the outreach program in which I worked. But there was something about him: a hidden spark of life, a furtive wild grin when he thought no one was watching --- and the trips to New York.
Paul was forty-eight, Jewish, and visited his reclusive mother once a week. He ate the same breakfast --- high cholesterol, of course --- every day in the greasy spoon not far from his apartment. He was a brilliant student when younger, and started college in New York City, majoring in engineering. Then the schizophrenia struck him down. He returned to Providence a shell of a man, and became a recluse, with several hospitalizations at the state hospital. His brother ran off with Paul's inheritance when their father died. Actually, Paul didn't bother to tell us that his father died until two years afterward. When asked why he didn't tell us at the time, he answered, "I dunno --- I didn't think it was important."
Every couple of years, Paul suddenly takes off for New York. He takes the train to Pennsylvania station, stays at the YMCA for three or four days, and comes home. Last time he was there, they told him not to come because he trashed his room.
A couple of weeks ago, he told me that he'd be going again. I asked him what he does in New York. He said he sits in his room and watches TV westerns and goes out for breakfast.
I asked Paul why he goes to New York.
"I dunno," he said.
I persisted. "When you went to college in NYC, what did you do for fun?"
He answered, "I went bowling in Grand Central Station."
Apparently, there was a bowling alley there.
I asked him whom he went with. He answered, "Emma Dawkins." His face became alive and the memories flowed. She was his girlfriend. She lived at 125th and Broadway. She was black. He said she never married and was still there at 125th and Broadway, but I think she was frozen in time for him, as he is frozen in time today.
I said to him, "It's good to have old times to remember, when things were fine." His face lit up with a big smile. I went on: "Paul, I go to New York sometimes. Next time I go, I'll bring you back something. What would you like?"
"A piece of cake," he said softly.
A piece of cake. Like Bonsche Schweig, from the Yiddish story by Y.L. Peretz. Bonsche Schweig is a nebbish who suffers one indignity after another, one misfortune after another, one tragedy, one humiliation, one degradation, one loss after another in life. Finally, he dies. The heavenly host celebrate the arrival of this true tzaddik --- this truly righteous man. And the head angel, welcoming him to heaven says to him: "Bonsche, your time has come. The reward for your unspeakable suffering is at hand. What would you like?" And Bonsche answers, "If it's not too much trouble, I think I would like a roll with butter." And the heavenly host weeps.
The story is supposed to be a satire on the passive suffering of a Jew waiting for the Messiah. But when Paul asked for a piece of cake, I wept, too.