The Development of Developments| January 22, 2019
Number fifty-five: Health fads. Diets. Avocado, kale, broccoli, black beans, chocolate are super foods. Detox drinks. Beets are in”
The fan was blowing directly on the vacant plastic chair opposite me just the way I liked it.
I’ve learned by now that there’s nothing like a little chill to intimidate and subdue the droves of women who come to occupy this chair. I leaned back, cracked my knuckles, and raised my seat’s height. Where was the next person?
There was a rap at the door.
“Come in!” I called, aiming for authoritative and, I dare say, succeeding, too. The door opened slowly, revealing a tall woman combing a be-ringed finger through a very straight chestnut-colored wiggy kind of wig with side bangs. She was wearing a belted khaki dress, most likely from Nordstrom or Macy’s, with fabric added to the bottom for extra length. The added piece was a shade off, but it was close enough, good enough. Her shoes had white soles and black fabric uppers. Colored stone earrings approximately a half-dollar’s diameter dangled from her ears. Her makeup was subtle, with the exception of over-lined eyes.
Finished with the once-over, I indicated the blue plastic chair wordlessly. She put her knockoff-but-a-pretty-good-copy black Michael Kors bag on the chair, inspected the seat, picked her bag up, sat down, and pulled the bag onto her lap, half-hugging it.
“How can I help you?” I asked. As if I offered more than one service. But it was better, I’d learned at the business management course, to allow clients to state what they needed.
“So, I’m moving to a development, and I need a Certificate of Authorization from the Department of Female Schmooze Development in order to get my C of O…” The woman trailed off, expecting me to take up the conversation.
I leaned forward, relishing the silence. It signified a good meeting. I clicked “Open New Account” in my Tishahkavin™ software.
Ninety-two percent of them were between the ages of 20 and 45.
“Where are you moving to?”
“Golden Oak Development in Monsey.”
Most of my clientele live in Lakewood or Monsey. Brooklyn and the Catskills each have their own branch of DFSD.
“Children? Their names? Ages? Which schools do they attend?”
By the time I wound down the questionnaire 33 minutes later, I’d almost developed carpal tunnel syndrome and Adina’s eyes were glazed over. I type fast, by the way.
I was done with the intake and could now move on to the main reason she was here. I swiveled around to the bookshelves behind me and extracted a somber-looking dark-brown leather tome.
I traced my fingers on the gold-stamped letters on the cover, as if to emphasize the title “The Cardinal Diktat on Chitchat: A Fundamental Guide to the 100 Permitted Topics of Frum Female Conversation.” On the bottom, in small but very discernible print, read “Under the auspices of Rabbanim United for American Jewry, the Shemiras Hapeh Foundation, and Society for Frum Females Dedicated to the Development of Developments.”
I opened the volume to the first page and smiled at her. Adina gave me a fleeting, hopeful smile.
Leaning forward, she placed a yellow legal pad on the desk. A wave of chestnut brown hair tumbled over her shoulder and concealed most of her face. Soon she was busy scribbling notes with an Apple Bank pen that, surprisingly enough, worked.
“Number Fifty-Two: Shidduch discussion. Dating, redting shidduchim, the shidduch crisis, the proper age to begin shidduchim, beshow stories, vorts, financial issues with marrying off children, dresses, makeup, shoes, flowers, menus. Amendment A: Topic not to be raised around chassidish single girls over the age of 19, litvish girls over the age of 20, and college-educated females over the age of 23.
“Number Fifty-Three: Birth stories. Maternity clothes. Epidurals, labors, C-sections. The food in the hospital. The new policy of no visitors apart from immediate family. Amendment A: not to be discussed in front of women married more than a year who are not yet mothers. Amendment B: The word pregnant not to be said aloud within earshot of girls under the age of 18.
“Number Fifty-Four: Amazon, Ebay, Aliexress. Shipping. Returns. Prices. Worth it versus not worth it. Saving Yiddish gelt. Amendment A: not to be discussed in front of those who own expensive boutique stores.
“Number Fifty-Five: Health fads. Diets. Avocado, kale, broccoli, black beans, chocolate are superfoods. Detox drinks. Beets are in. Low-carb diets. High-fat diets. Coconut oil. Chia seeds. Are traditional Shabbos foods bad for you? Yellow vegetables for breakfast, green ones for lunch. A cardio workout followed by yoga or vice versa. Amendment A: not to be discussed in front of a blood relative of a kosher bakery owner. Amendment B: not to be discussed in front of someone super fat or super skinny. Amendment C: When new studies on health sciences emerge, one is permitted to discuss them, even if it hasn’t been updated in the DFSD archives.”
I was about to read the one on boys’ trousers followed by the one on childrearing methods when I paused, looked up at Adina’s shaitel bangs hanging soggily about her, and in a fit of compassion, filled a cup with water and handed it to her.
“Here, have a drink. We’ve still got 45 topics to go.” She nodded gratefully and downed the contents.
I helped myself to a cup of water, too, and sipped slowly, as if it were a steaming cup of coffee. I’m on federal payroll for my time, so I may as well take it.
“It’s so hard to get a C of O. So much bureaucratic stuff to take care of,” she said in an attempt to fill the awkward silence with polite conversation.
I sat very still. I placed the paper cup on my desk. This wasn’t a topic I was to discuss. After all, how could she live in a heimish development without knowing the script of permitted topics for discussion?
She was moving into a new home in a big housing complex. She didn’t realize it now, but she was going to spend an awful lot of time chatting with her neighbors while waiting for kids’ school busses, at the corner supermarket, on the playground bench each afternoon, when a neighbor came to borrow a bag of flour, and Friday night after hadlakas neiros.
“You don’t realize just how important this briefing is,” I finally said. “You’ll know once you’ve moved.”
“But it’s going to be so boring. Always to have to stick to the same topics? I’ll go out of my mind!”
No you won’t, I wanted to retort. That’s all you’ll want to talk about anyway. But instead, I looked at the next women getting into the recycling system, Adina Gottesman, and said in a warm voice, masking my pity for her and my distaste of her dissent, “It’ll be alright, Adina. You’ll see, I think you’ll actually enjoy it.”
To which she solemnly responded, “Amen.”
An hour and many thousands of words later, we were done.
“Now if you can please sign here on the agreement form, so I can print a DFSD authorization for you? You’re supposed to take it to the housing authority.” I pushed the paper in her direction.
She extended a wary hand and took the document. And looked at it. And looked up at me. And back at the paper. She cleared her throat. Again cleared her throat. Downed the last dregs of water in her cup. She clicked the Apple Bank pen four times.
She stared past me, over me, around me, out the window, and on the blue tiles on the wall around the water cooler.
“Cut to the chase. What is it?” I blurted out, though I totally should have just sat there filing my nails as she took her anxious time signing her name on the paper that will grant her the certificate of occupancy she was toiling for.
“It’s just not me. I can’t sign. I can’t commit to such a thing.” She rolled the pen back and forth between two fingers. “I don’t know.” Her pen went sailing across the room, landing squarely on top of the tank of Poland Spring.
I blandly proffered her another pen, one from last year’s campaign of Mazon L’Shabbos of Rockland County. Bic from Staples costs money, you know.
“I’m a little more open-minded than that. I’m a little more, er, how shall I say it? Out of the box? Different? I’m totally not like everybody else.”
She blinked rapidly as she babbled on. “I’m not one of those snood ladies in the circle talking about the same stuff all day long. All life long.” She drew in a long breath.
“You realize that this is one of the requirements to receive your Certifi—”
“I know, I know,” she waved impatiently, sheitel hairs smacking her cheeks as she emphatically shook her head. “I just can’t.”
The woman stood up and locked me in a stare. “I’ll have to rethink this whole thing. If need be, I’ll have to drop the idea of living in a development. Although Heaven knows we can’t afford elsewhere…”
She smack-touch-and-kissed the mezuzah and disappeared from view.
I looked at the sheaf of papers sitting sans-signature on the desktop. I looked at my missed calls; zero personal calls, 15 business calls. I looked at the clock; two hours, but I couldn’t bill for that time yet, not until she signed.
I looked out the window. Two East Ramapo Central School District school busses drove past. The tractor across the street pivoted around to empty his shovel’s contents into the wheezing dump truck. Adina Gottesman was leaning on the green garbage dumpster in the front of the tidy lawn, immersed in her Samsung Galaxy. The screen facing me, I read the familiar face of the Uber homepage.
I perched my chin in my fist on the window sill, no curiosity or anything, really. I followed her fingers swiping this way and that as she ordered a car.
Suddenly her phone erupted in the Beethoven ringtone, startling me. My chin dropped onto the window sill. Ouch. Black-and-blue beard it’ll be.
“Chavy, what’s doing? You’ll never believe what just—What, no you didn’t! Here I was just gonna tell you about a nutty meeting I just had and you need to one up me there. Meeting with who? Racheli’s principal? Oh no, what now?
“I’m telling you she doesn’t ‘just need a firm hand’. This principal belongs in the old-age home. Take her to this therapist Zwiebelman on West Maple Avenue, she’s an expert in preteens. Yanky’s sister Perel sent her daughter for a half year, and she’s a changed person!
“I mean, Perel was sending her because of a self-esteem issue. You know which daughter, yes the chubby one. What an idea. I totally wouldn’t have thought of it. If she were my child, I would have sent her to a nutritionist, a dietician. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to try a child psychologist. I have to admit she’s a smart one,Perel.
“Your son? I mean, he’s not faaaat, but yeah, I do hear you. You’re right. Shidduchim sooner than later. Wow, time does fly. It feels like yesterday when you were trying to match the mauve velvet belts for your girls’ dresses for the bar mitzvah! Totally. B’kitzur, I agree with you. It is hard to put a 20-year old boy on a diet. What do they serve there anyway? I thought Yeshivas Torah Lishmoh was better than they used to be with the meals. Anyway, Hashem will help, so why worry, like Mommy always says.
“Did you see the link I sent you? Still not? Check it out now! It’s a hat, scarf, and mitten set for my girls. I thought it was so original. Nobody’s being identical to me this year. No pompoms or anything hunter green, I decided. Enough with being the grand old copycat. I’m such an individual by nature, you know. I can’t stand this business.
“Which is exactly why I’m in such turmoil right now. Can you listen to me already? I was trying to tell you about this crazy meeting. Hold on, my taxi’s here.”
Her voice faded and I heard the slam of a car door.
Rubbing my bruised chin, I thought hard.
Why was it so difficult for my clients to sign?
As I watched my next client haphazardly park in the driveway, it suddenly clicked. I got it.
Adina, like every other woman ever to have occupied that blue chair, wasn’t really worried about her conversations being trite or redundant. She wasn’t afraid that she’d be left hanging mid-conversation, having exhausted all permitted topics. There was a different fear here.
I grabbed a marker from the desktop organizer and wrote in block letters on a white paper “You are an individual.” Then, in tiny indiscernible print, I scrawled “just like everybody else,” below it. I pasted the note on the blue tiles above the water cooler, just in time for the next client.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 627)
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