Opinion

Emanuel Derman

An excerpt from Prost, a work in progress

By Emanuel Derman
July 13, 2012

All our fashions, in those days, were imported from America. In the summer of 1956, when I was eleven, the hot items were fluorescent nylon socks in lime green or neon pink that shone in the dark as we strolled up and down the beachfront at night. These beachfront strolls were a local version of what my Yiddish-speaking parents called shpatzieren, the pre-WWII Mittel-European slow promenading up and down the main street on a Saturday or Sunday summer afternoon, men in white suits walking arm-in-arm with their parasol-carrying wives, the men doffing their hats to the opposing women on someone else’s arm, the women smiling back in response. Shop on Main Street.

That’s how we kids strolled on the elevated Promenade in Muizenberg and on the strip of Beach Road in Sea Point in those Fifties days. Muizenberg, then but now no longer, was a South African Brighton or Blackpool, a copycat English-style summer resort for the masses. At lunchtime day-tripping crowds picnicked on the Muizenberg lawns; before and after they sat jammed together under beach umbrellas on the narrow stretch of beach between the raised cement sidewalk and the sea. The beach was divided in two by a line of brightly colored (red or yellow or blue or green) wooden beach bungalows that ran parallel to the water. Families rented a semidetached half of a bungalow for the season; you could lock and store beach equipment in them, and change in and out of your swimsuit in privacy, though friends I knew peeked through holes in the dividing wall of their parents’ bungalow to watch girls in the adjacent half changing out of their costumes, as we called swimsuits. Muizenberg had a Milk Bar where you could twirl on raised leather bar seats and order milk shakes, and next to it a copycat English-style penny arcade where you could play mechanical games for a penny or two. Inside the arcade was a little studio where you could pay to record your voice on a shellac-covered tin disk, as did Pinky in Brighton Beach. I still have one my father recorded with me, where you can hear him, heavily Yiddish-accented, prompting my four-year-old self at 78 rpm with the words I forgot in Mother Goose nursery rhymes. At the entrance to the long cement Promenade was a ten-foot-high hexagonal windowless cement kiosk that housed a camera obscura whose lens, situated at the top of the kiosk, on a sunny day projected, onto a horizontal table at the center of the kiosk, moving images of the people outside walking (shpatziering) up and down “The Prom.” It was magical.

Sea Point, in contrast to Blackpoolish Muizenberg, was Nice or Venice. The beachfront was dotted with cafés, Italian-owned pizzerias, apartment blocks with French- or Italian-Riviera names (Marseilles, San Remo). You could buy gelatos, frullatos, espressos. All of this exotic foreigness had sprung up during the postwar boom in which Italy became synonymous with sophisticated food, movies and clothes.

Shpatzieren: Your parents took you to Sea Point by car; you separated into your tribal groups; pre- or early-teen boys walked in groups with boys, girls with girls, checking each other out on hot summer nights during the holidays; parents strolled separately on the same strip; at the end of the evening you met up with them again for the ride home.

Muizenberg’s Snake Pit, obviously named for a reason I never thought about then, was the most crowded beach at Muizenberg, a triangle of white sand between the beach bungalows and the Promenade that was jam-packed with white boys and girls on beach towels. Coloured men roamed the apartheid-era beach selling paper cups of lychees. At dusk other Coloured men and women strained the sand for dropped coins.

In the Snake Pit, that summer, the really cool kids wore thin gold or silver chains with Stars of David around their necks. There was something sexy and shameless, and nothing at all religious about wearing these symbols, a silly rebuttal to the crosses worn by gentiles. I wanted one too, though I knew by nature that jewelry on men was prost, the Yiddish-Polish word for vulgar, common. It wasn’t good to be prost. Nevertheless, I longed for a chain too.

Comments
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You are fortunate to have a 78 rpm recording of your father’s voice. I wish I could hear my father’s voice.

I’m surprised at how crowded your beach of days past appears. When one is in south Florida, or the New Jersey shore (any of it), there is more sand and boardwalk space (EDIT: with the exception of Atlantic City). I visited Far Rockaway once, at the terminus of the A train. Quite different there. Far Rockaway beach in 1999 resembled your photo of Muizenberg in 1956.

What is your intention for this work in progress, Prost? Auto-biography? I realize that prost is Yiddish, but some people might confuse it with Proust. Well… maybe not! It would be depressing to write a book-length, first-person work whose title is synonymous with vulgar, or common. “Portnoy’s Complaint” was somewhat like that, but I don’t know if it was auto-biographical. From what I have read, there is little in your background that would be considered fodder for a book titled “Prost”.

Did you ever get a gold chain with a Star of David? I used to think they were tacky too. Then I came to understand why, for some people, they weren’t at all. But those women always wore their Stars of David inside their blouses, rarely in view. I love gold chains, ornate Star of David pendants. I didn’t when I was younger though! Nor did my mother.

Vulgarity and “common-ness” (louche? declasse?) are strange; subjective, fluid, almost cyclical. While I cringe at behaving in ways that are considered prost, I find it challenging to determine exactly what *is* or *isn’t* prost, particularly over a span of time!

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