Postcard from the past

Transitions №2

Author: Anna Halberstadt


My beloved city
you had opened your gates to me
when I was thrown on your shores
like others,
seeking your kindness
and shelter
after a disaster or an upheaval.
I learned your dangerous streets
at night
coming from work in a neighborhood
considered dangerous
to another
not much better.

In Ravenswood projects
a young drug addict
always high and always pregnant
lying on the floor
of the elevator
almost nightly.
My nine-year old
was waiting for me
in front of an old TV
getting fat on potato chips
and sweet ice tea.

New York,
you were my partner
my open and truthful lover
you showed me your catacombs
your Brigthon, your Coney Island
your Bedford Stuy
your subways
trains full of emaciated ghetto kids
high on crack
and other shit
you had me mugged
on the way to work
under the subway tracks
on the way
from Neptune Avenue stop
to the clinic
on West Eighth Street.

You showed me
your masturbating men
in morning cars
when the rest of the working class
went uptown to work.
You showed me your
silent exhibitionists
your white loiterers
your black homeless bums
even one Hasid with payees
jerking off standing
in his satin lapserdak.
With their lonely dicks
in their slimy hands
staring across the empty car
at me on Mondays
as I was looking up
from my Sunday Times.

not suspecting this was a name of a Polish freedom fighter.

You also showed me the Village
Cafes– Reggio, Dante
Cafe delli Artisti on Greenwich avenue
Oh, sweet ti-rami-su!
Film Forum and the Bleecker street cinema
“The Night Porter” with Charlotte Rampling playing
I had heard of it back in Moscow
and me not able to scrape up enough money
for the four-dollar ticket.
You showed me the windows of Bergdorf Goodman’s
and of Altman’s
with a fluffy Italian coat
the color of pine needles
the same one
I had bought on a street of Rome
for eighty bucks
a quarter of what it cost here.
I discovered for the first time in my life
that I was in a capitalist country
and I was poor.

My city
don’t be a stranger!
Today you turned your back to me
dark, opaque, impenetrable.
Your streets are shutting the windows
of my favorite bookstores
and old cafes.
They are putting on masks
of chain pharmacies, starbucks
and capital one chase citi banks.
Strangers are walking your streets
tourists snapping soaring
skyscraper buildings
from the High Line.
Open up, you,
let me feel you again
please, touch my heart!


not missing you
not gasping
seeing the plaque
with your name
above the apartment number
on the wall of your home.
That’s how it goes—
today the sky is stuffed
with clouds
puffy and gray,
How one makes peace
with disappearance
plain absence
the new tenant
does not know the previous
but this place contains
of a man with salt-and-pepper hair
ironic smile and
a lifetime smoker’s
raspy voice,
his history books occupied
a whole wall.
The lining of the leather chair
had a cigarette burn
the Italian ceramic coffee jar
its cover broken
stood on the kitchen counter.
I had given two painted
jars for tea and coffee
to him once
for his birthday,
he was mad
at me for being
absent for hours
in pouring rain.
He used to say
I was the love of his life.
I think of jasmine and lilacs.

* * *

I met Holocaust survivors
in my psychotherapy groups
at a Jewish community center
in Brooklyn.
They were mostly from Moldova and Belarus
and their survival stories
were amazing.
“The Painted Bird” and “Schindler’s
List” pale in comparison.
A girl hiding in the woods
and meeting her father
with the partisans
in the swamps of Belarus.
In the picture fifteen-year-old Flora is the same height, as her rifle.
Today I watched an interview
with an elderly woman
from pre-war Vilno
who was hiding in Taurage
with her mother
in the dog house for three days.
The fierce dog, guarding
the owners’ house,
remembered her mother’s kindness—it not only did not touch them
the dog allowed them to eat
from its dish.
The woman said: “Animals can be kinder than people.”
If god exists, in his eyes
Jove has to be equal to an ox
and Picasso — to a child
with Down syndrome.
I want to believe in god, as the ultimate fairness.
And if he doesn’t exist,
we should invent him.
If we choose the route of entitlement
as opposed
to compassion


New York,
you have turned into a Hopper masterpiece
empty streets
a lone car turning a corner on Mercer
flowering trees with pink and white buds
this cruel month of April.

Entitled dog owners without masks
walking fluffy poodles
and labradoodles
a homeless woman in glasses
lying on a ripped futon
on University place
reads a sci-fi novel.

Eerie light falling from gaps
in grey puffy clouds
rare passersby in masks
with shopping bags
full of dry pasta, rolls of toilet paper and towels
politely and anxiously jump
and step away from each other
in this weird and sad coronavirus dance.


is a new normal
normal abnormal
a constant subliminal toothache
everyday reports anesthetize you
numb reactions
city is full of mask-less rebels
anxious loiterers
in the line to a liquor store
unravelling psyches
night cowboys with knives

In the park irises wilting

April 7, 2020


For Elena Mikhailik

On Fraser Island the guide showed us a nest
where poisonous spiders live.
He said– Their poison is deadly
and they have a habit of chasing after you
and trying to bite you again.
But we haven’t seen them here for a while

Then we passed by a wild dingo dog
smiling at us sweetly.
So cute!
The guide says– Oh, recently
a twelve-year-old boy, lost on the island
was torn apart by dingoes

In Australia it humbles you
to know you are surrounded
by dangerous creatures on earth
and in the water.
You watch in awe a huge eagle descending
and lifting a big turtle
from the beach

And a twenty-thousand-pound ship
standing on sand
after it was thrown on the shore years ago

Proportion of man vis-a-vi wildlife
is less delusional there

Wall street arrogance
Russian greed
Chinese pollution
North-Korean insanity

Populist power-mongers
and paranoid control-freaks
in charge of huge countries

In the meantime
New York is turning
into Ground Zero again
and in Bergamo they just managed
to bury their dead now

Moscow is accusing Bill Gates
of conspiracy to start the pandemic
to reduce the population of the planet
and to profit from the vaccine

An invisible and predatory virus –
will it finally wake us up?


Wild boars and porcupines
are roaming the forests of Galilee
nature rejoices.
A man in his apartment in Kew Gardens
saw a family of raccoons
under his balcony
that he only knew,
but were never seen in Queens.

A sheep escaped her flock
in Portugal and grew
sixty pounds of fur
grazing in the mountains.
Journalists reported
that wolves had tried to eat her
but their teeth
could not penetrate
the fur.
This fluffy goofball posed for pictures.

The sky is abnormally blue over Broadway
as I am crossing Wall Street
white puffy clouds are
like clouds of gauze
in wards of Covid hospitals
with patients on oxygen
clinging to what is meant
for each one
as the remainder of his or her life.

Three Moirae are weaving overtime
entangled in more threads
they’ve ever handled.
Atropos can’t manage
cutting them alone.
They have no time to wipe
their foreheads
take a sip of water
sweaty and exhausted
like ICU doctors.


Streams of people are crisscrossing
embroidering Astor Place
on Saturday afternoon in June.
A young John Lennon in brown 70s boots
with long tresses is posing for a selfie
with his girlfriend’s boobs
her thong visible under the clingy grey dress.
Why do people need to touch each other?
Why does this tall grey-haired passer-by
in orthopedic shoes
desperately need someone to call his nickname
no one remembers any longer?
To touch his wrinkled wrist,
someone other,
than a nurse measuring his pulse?
Akhmatova wrote
she would give away her son and
her husband, as well as everything
she had written
for her motherland to be out of danger.
When her son Lev Gumilev
Moved in with her
at seventeen
his cot was put in the hallway next
to the white tile stove
while Anna was sleeping in the large room
behind the wall
with her lover Punin.
It’s true, the spot near the stove
was warm all right
but Lev
raised by his paternal grandmother
still felt slighted.


The director of the psychiatric clinic asked me
to make a home visit–
someone from a Jewish community center
called and asked for help.
A young woman from Leningrad
who had come to America with her mother
and a five-year old son
was bedridden.
She had stage IV breast cancer.
My heart sank.
It could have been me.

My worst nightmare– what would happen
to my nine-year old son
if I die?
Disabled mother
utterly unpractical father
with his head in abstract matters
no other family in the States
other than Nina
my father’s American cousin
a bottle-blond bubblehead
who loved dancing in Roseland.
She managed to survive the war
under German occupation in Southern Russia
a Jew, working for a German newspaper.
German was her father’s tongue.

I entered an apartment
in a non-descript building in Crown Heights.
A middle-aged petite woman with an anxious expression
on her face opened the door.
The walls were painted
a sickly yellow.
Her daughter Lida was lying in bed.
I took a chair and sat next to her
trying not to tremble.
There was a huge bony bump
on her skinny chest
like a hump on a camel’s back.
We spoke.

Lida told me –
everything was under control
she was treated by a holistic doctor
he was helping her with naturopathic treatments.
Lida’s five-year old son with dark curls
was being explained something
by the grandmother
who tried to wipe a worried expression
from her face.
Lida told me, she was not depressed
nor anxious.

She believed she would conquer the disease.
The only thing,
that bothered the hell out of her
was how filthy
the windows were in her apartment.
It was in June
and the day was sunny.
I could clearly see a thick layer of dust
on the glass.
Lida needed more light.

When I returned to the clinic,
I told Ken
that all the patient wanted
was us to help her
have the windows in her apartment
Ken sighed and said: “For this we got no funds.”

Years later
someone at the clinic asked me
if I recalled that home visit.

Lida died a few weeks after me going there.
Two years after her death
her mother died.
Lida’s son was fostered
by a Jewish Orthodox family.
The adoption did not work out.
Then he was fostered by another Orthodox family.
The story ends here.

* * *

Life is banal, and so is death
Endless tales of patients’ feelings
Are banal, because everyone
Felt some of that :
Shame of a jilted lover
Rage about the betrayal
Of the one person
That had promised to consider
Your feelings.
Panic of a five-year-old lost
In a department store
When the ICU nurse says
Your mother’s no more.


stretched above university roofs.
Behind the window
rumble of a single car
the world grows quiet for a minute
listening to sounds –
Lang Lang performs on NPR
he plays Goldberg variation number Nineteen
when finished, he says to listeners:
“Please, stay at home.”
Someone is afraid to breath outdoors
she nervously exhales
when returning home.
In a London Covid hospital patients
are choking to death
a young Lithuanian doctor explains:
The virus has many faces, it’s not the same disease.
Pandora has disobeyed Zeus
she opened the lid of the vessel
and let misfortunes and disasters fly all over the earth
to punish people, that had lived like children
for a hundred years, not knowing evil.
Pigeons and squirrels in Washington Square
couldn’t care less
a couple of thrushes joined them
chirping, socializing.
A cheerful artist’s funeral takes place in Queens.
Relatives are being told to stay in their car
until the coffin is buried.
A young doctor
with a great smile
she loved to ski and took salsa classes
is taking a break from her work at ICU
in her sister’s house in Charlottesville.
She is recovering from coronavirus.
The woman opens ups her veins
with her agile doctor’s hand in a hot bath,
no longer able to bear the thought
of going back to trenches.
According to the legend,
inside Pandora’s vessel, Hope was the only one
who hid and stayed alive.


For Maria Stepanova

. . .or to write about flowers
seems impossible,
like writing love sonnets.
Yet one can’t help it
but notice
that we are locked into
noticing the silvery grey of the sky
while crossing the street,
exclaiming “Snow!”
when watching the first snowfall
of the year.
We say ”What a cute baby!”
looking at a really cute baby
with a pacifier in its flower-like
little mouth.
I listen to the sounds of a forgotten tango
and it evokes nostalgia
for my childhood
mother in her blue taffeta dress
and heels dancing
to Bésa Me Mucho
as much, as it’s banality
makes me feel
like worn-out leather shoes
that I prefer
to the new cool ones.

* * *

A Jewish woman with eyes of ancient beauty
has to light candles
and say a prayer over a fresh chala
bread on shabbos.
Even she grew up in a godless country and
she was never taught
to read sacred texts

She has to tremble in awe, reading the Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon.

Grandmother Frieda studied medicine in Hamburg, then she married a doctor.
I heard, she was a kindly woman, who loved her younger son
Senechka, and the older, her step-son Ruvim ( she had married a widower).

She used to stage children’s plays on holidays in their house in Utena.

A Jewish man has to secretly talk to God, asking to spare from grief his loved ones.
He has to care about his wife and kids, even if he likes philosophy and sex with shiksas.

A cold heart and party alliances- are signs of degradation.

Father was a biologist, he put frogs to sleep in a jar with ether
and then dissected them
with his students.
A needle scratched a curve
of muscular fatigue
on the drum with smoky black paper.

Once they even grilled frog legs on a spirit burner,
and toasted each other with spirit as well.

When immigrating, father found himself in Vienna and he went to
a synagogue to say kaddish for his
fallen relatives.
But it turned out, that it was a Sephardic temple, and he was not able to read the prayer.

Later I asked him, if he believed in God.

How can a Jew survive without no one to love? Love for learning,
pride and ambition, sexual pursuits, vanity of vanities. ..
And vexation of spirit—it remains vexation of spirit.
At home Mother used to secretly order a Kaddish in the old synagogue with the blue sky and
white clouds painted on the ceiling.

A cool breeze from
the sea, it brings relief on a scorching day.


Libido is hard to contain
Marriage for the most part
Has turned into a rotten construction
Falling apart as it ages.
In every society people look for ways
To constrain and to justify fucking.
Russia had re-discovered group sex
As with everything else
After the Western fashion died out
Forty years prior.
In my office I see forty-year old virgins
That had studied a perfect way
To perform a blow job on internet.
Sexless and tense married couples
And transvestic fetishists
Jerking off in their bathrooms
In wigs and red lace bikinis
Before joining their
Catholic wifes in their cold and sterile
Suburban oversized beds.
Unhappily married women
Falling asleep with their dildos
Dreaming of the husband turning
Into Kerry Grant or Jeremy Irons.
Sex is something intimate
They do on their own
Alone with their infantile fantasies
Of being loved, being desired,
Being punished, being molested,
Being admired, with perfect bodies,
Devoid of shame for their lonely habits
M&Ms and chocolate bark
Consumed in the dark.
Tears running down makeup-smeared cheeks
In front of lit-by-harsh-blue-light
Bathroom mirrors.
Strangers who would never meet
in the starless night.