If I were in New York City, I would be seated at a computer terminal at the Mid-Manhattan Library located at 455 Fifth Avenue, near Bryant Park. Oscar Berg, the head librarian, would be eying me suspiciously. I always seem to attract the notice of paranoid head librarians. Oscar is clearly gay, in his mid-40s, and wears glasses that have a distinctly ladies style. Yes, he is wearing ladies glasses. It’s the first thing I noticed about him – that and his flamboyantly girlish mannerisms.
Oscar lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, in an apartment building whose rents have not yet been inflated by gentrification. Oscar’s preferred stomping grounds, Park Slope is out of the question on his limited librarian’s salary. Oscar takes the M train from Brooklyn every morning. He doesn’t own a car.
Oscar started working as a librarian in his mid-twenties, following a lengthy stretch of unemployment after college. He majored in Forensic Anthropology at Queens College, but upon graduation no police department in the New York area would hire him. Oscar is blind in one eye and near-sighted in the other. He started as a volunteer at the Far Rockaway Library on Central Avenue and was later hired as a library associate, working there for ten years. He sometimes steals time from his duties as librarian to work on a lengthy treatise he is writing about the last Czar of Russia titled: The Romanovs: Forensic Identification of the Czar’s Grave.
Oscar Berg is an individualist of the highest order. He used to eat lunch alone on a park bench a short distance from the Far Rockaway Library. He would loll in the sea breeze and sometimes take a solitary stroll down to the beach, just wandering with no particular aim other than exploring his own thoughts. In 2004 he was transferred to Manhattan and, for the first few years of his new assignment, he continued to live in Queens. Oscar used to take the A train from Queens every morning. He’s never owned a car. He now eats lunch in Bryant Park.
I am seated next to another patron, a young man, apparently a student. I heard him say to Oscar Berg: “You have a couple of books on reserve for me. My name is Ben Shirazi.” Oscar Berg nods when Ben Shirazi says, “Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph Lash and The Lives and Works of the English Romantic Poets.”
So I am seated next to Shirazi. In fact, he studies accounting at New York University. He is athletic. In high school he lettered in track and field and medaled in the men’s 400-meter race and in the 4 × 100 meter relay.
Ben Shirazi plugs away as a grocery store check-out clerk when he’s not working on his degree. His father is Ezra Shirazi, a wealthy dentist who lives in a spacious house just blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The elder Shirazi was born in Iran. He left the country in January 1979 at the same time the Shah left Tehran, ostensibly “on vacation.” Neither the Shah nor Dr. Shirazi ever returned. It was the start of the Revolution.
Dr. Shirazi considers his son a good-for nothing who married a shiksa. Dr. Shirazi refuses to contribute to Ben’s living expenses or his college tuition. Ben and his wife support themselves on Ben’s grocery clerk salary and her earnings as a stripper. Ben’s wife works at a club in Manhattan. She is employed three nights a week. She tells people she is working on a career “in the entertainment industry.”
This evening the elder Shirazi and his wife, Esther will be having dinner with their son, Ben and his shiksa wife. Mrs. Shirazi was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Tehran. Her father, Daniel Dehpour was a walnut importer. Mrs. Shirazi’s younger brother, Avram is an accomplished pianist who lives in upstate New York, in a house by a lake. He does consulting work, advising clients on Muslim extremism and Middle-East terrorism.
The Shirazis’ Turkish cook, Hanife will be preparing roast chicken with walnuts and pomegranate molasses — an Iranian specialty popular with Persian Jews. Hanife learned how to prepare the chicken dish from Mrs. Shirazi. Hanife is a devout Muslim. A silk shawl protects her modesty in this home of Iranian Jews.
Mrs. Shirazi was crushed by her son’s decision to marry outside the faith. Ben is her only child. The Shirazis had dreamed of the day when Ben would marry a girl from the Iranian-Jewish émigré community. But that is what happens in America, she says painfully. “America gives us freedom but it corrupts our children.”
Mrs. Shirazi started seeing a psychiatrist shortly after Ben married, a psychoanalyst named Leonard Shengold. She saw him five days a week at his office on Park Avenue. She took a cab to see the doctor every morning after she had her fill of Good Morning America. She stayed in analysis for several weeks, but terminated when Dr. Shengold told her she needed to examine issues from her childhood. Esther Shirazi insisted that her Iranian childhood was idyllic. Mrs. Shirazi feared she had a “fragile ego,” a term she learned on the Internet. Her memories of a privileged childhood in Iran were all that sustained her. She could not risk what analysis had to offer if it meant tainting the cherished memories that haunted her “inner garden.” At her last consultation Mrs. Shirazi told her analyst about her “inner garden.” At that, Dr. Shengold had cleared his throat and said that perhaps psychoanalysis was not the treatment of choice.