Famous … and moi … Gypsies. Gabors.
Albert E. Banesh? Naw, Albert Einstein and Banesh Hoffman. Somehow, April 1st, being April Fool’s Day, got me to thinking about some of the fools I have met in my life, whose names escape me now. Bless old age! Then I began remembering some of the famous or infamous people of renown whose paths and mine have crossed since my earliest days. Occasionally something will trigger a memory, and then I’ll make note of it for a future writing project.
Many of the names of the people I’ve met are no longer in my psyche. Although a few recollections of adventures with these persons do remain, many others have long evaporated into the fogs of seven decades of life. Several memoir writings of mine contain references to these remembered / recalled people. This particular essay came about when I wondered what two adventures in my life are farthest removed from one another. So I decided my personal encounters with the Romanian gypsies of the Danube with the in the middle 1930’s are totally dissimilar with them.
One of my earliest memories involves the gypsy “king” and his tribe who lived in a forest area in a dozen wooden gypsy caravans on the high shores of the Danube River, about a kilometer from our family’s summer homes in Klosterneuburg, an hour’s automobile ride from Vienna, Austria. We spent weekends and summer holidays there until the war started. The tribe earned a handsome living seeking “donations” from citizens who wanted to get on a less than steep sandy road down to the water and its muddy beaches.
On any given Saturday, my parents and grandparents would ride their bicycles along the well paved road passing our homes to get to the gypsy-guarded path to the Danube River. My seat was a roomy wicker basket in which I faced forward. It was fastened onto the front handlebars and fender of the front wheel of my mom’s bicycle.
The adult members of my family disliked the gypsies, and, it seemed to me, were inordinately afraid of them. I rather liked the tribe, and they and I would greet each other warmly and happily as I climbed out of my basket. The extremely cordial children poured out of those wooden wagons called caravans to surround our bicycles. When travelling, the caravans were pulled by horses. After I hopped out of my basket, we played merrily together for about a quarter of an hour. The king and his wife beamed benignly as we children played circle games or tossed beanbags to each other. On occasion, the king would let me ride his crossed knee as we held hands and he jounced me to the tune of a folk song I still vaguely recall until my dear friend, Eva wrote it out for me correctly
She remembers the rhyme from her youth in Germany, and kindly wrote it down for me correctly. It is chanted by the adult and the child. Hűppa, hűppa, Reiter, Gehn wir immer weiter. Hűppa, hűppa, Reiter, wenn er fällt, dann schreit er. Fällt er in den Graben, fressen ihr die Raben. Fällt er in den Sumpf, dann macht der Reiter p l ű m p f ! Huppah, Huppah, riders we continue forever. Huppah, Huppah, rider, when we fall, and cry out, the ravens will eat us. But if we fall into the ditch, then the rider makes a ploomf sound! Then the king’s knees would part, and I would fall towards the ground. He always caught me an inch from the actual floor. We laughed wildly.
My family wore forced smiles, knowing full well that the men of our family played this game with me for hours, but were afraid to insult the gypsies. Then it was time to go, and he refused to accept money from my family as they moved onto the river path. Later, at home, I was warned gypsies could and would cast spells. As I grew older, many stories about the wickedness of the gypsies were repeatedly told to me, but I didn’t believe them, much to the adults’ chagrin.
This memory started my mulling about contrasts. What casual, chance meetings would be furthest removed from the gypsies? During my times of residence in New York City, I had chance, personal encounters with many well known baseball players, stage, concert, folk musicians, opera, radio, TV personalities, celebrities, civil rights and union activists, and well known political figures which once included Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Some encounters happened more than once, and I was always delighted these people remembered me, if not by name, but by former conversations.
Even the infamous Gabor family knew me during my childhood and teen years as my parents, with their upholstery, down comforter, and drapery talents were favorite trades people of theirs. The Gabors were amused to have to pay in advance. These Hungarians, like my parents, knew the queens had an extremely poor track record regarding debts.
“Hungarians! Romanians! Gypsies! They are all gypsies. No sense of honor. They’ll pay me in full first. Then we do their work.” my father used to shout after receiving a phone call from their majesties.
Well, let’s see. My parents considered the Gabors no better than the gypsies, I feeling I didn’t agree with. But in respect to the family, I had to think about what other encounter of my past is farthest removed from the Romanian Gypsy King?
A few days later, as I was looking at the calendar, still thinking about this conundrum, I found my answer – Albert Einstein.
Well, I casually knew ol’ Albert. I spent a great deal of time in Princeton in my youth, birding, botanizing, and rubber necking. When we saw each other on the grounds of Institute of Advanced Studies, or on a Princeton street, my pal, who wore no socks, would greet me with a cordial, “Jahwohl, hier ist unsere Weinerin!”. (Yes, indeed, here is our Viennese girl.) We would exchange short pleasantries. Every once in a while, he would gently twit me on my lack of math knowledge. You see, back in 1951, after I graduated from high school, one of his best friends, the well-known mathematician Dr. Banesh Hoffman, had been my long-suffering calculus professor at Queens College.
Despite extensive tutoring, I was the only one of his students who ever got an F double minus on the final because I spelled my last name wrong. I was so agitated, I forgot the “s” of Brooks!`
After that final disaster, the good doctor and I, who really enjoyed each other’s company, sat down in his office. “My dearElizabeth,” he said, holding both my hands in his as we sat in his office after the final, “You must promise never to take an advanced mathematics course again. Your tutor often came to me in tears, poor girl. I am very fond of you, and since you spend so much time in Princeton, I will introduce you to a friend of mine during your next visit. He is highly amused by my tales of your struggles with calculus. But you may NOT take anything more complicated than Statistics. I also encourage you NOT to take Physics as you had planned.”
To tell the truth, I was relieved to hear his words, and gladly promised him I would not reach for the heights. Incidentally, my adventures with physics many years later is titled New Clear Glass in my memoirs.
Just before we left, I asked him his friend’s name. He smiled. “Albert.”
“Albert? Albert who?”
Dr. Hoffman laughed until he had tears in his eyes. “He doesn’t wear socks because his wife was angry about how he mismatches the styles and colors. You can recognize him by that field mark.”
“Oh, that Albert. I’ve often seen him all over town, but have never spoken to him. We do nod to each other, though, as we’ve passed each other so often.”
“So, you shall meet him formally next Saturday. You two are truly on opposite ends of the scale. Since I do like you both, I must admit I find the contrast between you two fascinating”
“Viva higher mathematics,” I muttered, giggling.
Dr. Hoffman roared with laughter.