DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
And now a story about a chance encounter. The place, Charm City. The woman, Jael Freedman. And the man, Tony Platt.
Mr. TONY PLATT (Author): I'd stopped in Baltimore for the day on route to Washington, D.C. from rural Pennsylvania, where I'd been attending a conference on the Holocaust. I was traveling to promote my new book. And between appointments I found myself in a trendy part of Baltimore, a little island of yuppie-dom not far from streets of boarded up houses. I walked into this Mediterranean-style spa that offers the works.
Back in the San Francisco Bay area where I live it's no big deal to see guys, straight and gay, getting and giving beauty treatments. But here it was all women, both sides of the workstations. I wanted to get a manicure before lunch, but nobody was available.
Ms. JAEL FREEDMAN (Manicurist/Poet): I came in that day, it was a Tuesday, and I had no clients that day. And my gas tank was also on E. And I kept praying that a client would in because I needed like a tip so that I could get gas. So I leave, come back, and I heard that a gentleman came in around 12, 12:30 to get a manicure and that he may come back. And I was just praying like please let him come back. And around 3:00 o'clock he came back.
Mr. PLATT: I came back because I needed some time out. The conference I had attended had quickly degenerated into opposing camps with no common ground. It had left me with a bitter taste. One well known writer, hackles raised, even accused me of being a Holocaust minimizer when I called for the comparative study of genocide. You'd think there were enough human made tragedies to go around without having to fence them off against interlopers.
This manicure was a spur of the moment decision to which I seem to be more open these days despite my genetic propensity for over planning. My hands felt rough and scaly from the sharp spring winds and for a few bucks and a little time I could relax and have a moment of intimacy, no strings attached.
When I sat down in the salon's comfy chair, my manicurist introduced herself, but I wasn't really paying attention. After I left an hour later, I couldn't get her out of my head. I did some googling on the internet, and discovered that her name evokes a feminist heroine of the Old Testament who vanquished an enemy of the Israelites. She put her left hand to the nail, it says in the book of Judges, and her right hand to the workman's hammer and she smote off his head. Here in New Baltimore the assassin's namesake took my hands gently into hers.
Ms. FREEDMAN: And we just started talking. I always have conversations with my clients, more personal for them just so I can get a feel of who they are and the type of life that they live, where they come from. I feel like when someone is touching you, that's intimate. And I feel like it's also a sense of trust. And I feel like I want the client to just feel very, very comfortable with me, so hopefully they'll make another appointment and come back.
Mr. PLATT: I'm used to a manicure being conducted in complete silence, because typically we have no language in common. But my manicurist this time, a white working class woman in her 30s, wanted to talk. He face was strong, nothing pretty-pretty in it. She looked me in the eye and questioned me without any hint of false deference. When I told her the title of my book, Bloodlines, she asked, Whose, yours? And quickly I was talking about the book tour and the book and my personal reflections on Jewish identity.
This was a useful exercise because my publicist says that I have to able to describe the complex, multi-layered narrative in three simple sentences. But my manicurist wasn't satisfied with three sentences of chitchat. She wanted all the layers and wouldn't settle for a soundbite. When I was through I asked her about her life.
Ms. FREEDMAN: He wanted to where I went to school, what I did. I did not graduate high school and I didn't go to college. So, but I feel like in life everything is learning. And just because you don't take the traditional learning, that doesn't mean that you're any less smart than someone who has a doctorate. And he asked me what I loved in life. And my love is poetry.
Mr. PLATT: She told me she didn't write down her work. I'm bad speller, the poems are all in here, she said, pointing the cuticle nippers towards her head. When I asked her to recite one of her poems she said, sure, without any hesitation, collected herself, arched her body and launched into the cadence. The presentation was assured, the content sharp and unsentimental, not at all what I'd expected.
Ms. FREEDMAN: Back in the early '90s I had actually witnessed a really, really young, young man being shot. And it had such an effect on me. And so for me a way to express myself is through the poetry. He laid on the cold concrete as his heart skipped beats. And his body? It began to shake. It wasn't from no earthquake. Nah, it was 13 bullet holes and there was blood all on his clothes. And what? What did you just say? How do I know it was 13? Because I counted them one by one as I tried to comfort his mother's only son. I told him to hold on that everything would be alright as I held his hand tight not knowing how long he would continue to fight.
Now let me see, there was two to the head. And five to the chest. And man, I can't even remember the rest. But I know it was 13 because 13 is just an unlucky number. And besides who could forget something like that and now looking back, I remember how the sirens sound. And how he looked as he laid on the ground. And I heard one of the paramedics say that this one is DOA. It made me wonder karmic price he had to pay. And is true that what goes around comes around? And if so, what did he do that was so bad that somebody would want to lay him down six feet deep in a permanent sleep? For him there will be no tomorrow. And for his family there would only be sorrow and much felt regret. And soon we'd forget and he'd just be another statistic. Another brother that has died, another senseless homicide.
See, we need to come together as a people, as a nation. I mean we're more concerned with inflation that we don't even realize we are killing off the population. And it is not in my imagination. And there was 13 bullet holes. And there was blood all on his clothes. And I watched him as he just lay there knowing that he never had a final prayer. And people? They just stopped and stared as I thought to myself, no one really cares. All right, maybe that's not true. Maybe we do but we're just to scared to.
See, we need to stop this killing but first we've got to be willing to participate and communicate and educate our children. And teach them that there is more to life than just mere survival. Maybe we need to go back to our roots when we were tribal. We could first start by reading the Bible. I mean we're in such a hurry to get nowhere fast that we're still living in the past. But our feet? They're not binded by chains. And bullets? They don't have names. So just ask yourself the question what would make one brother want to be so cold that he would want to take another brother's soul? Thank you.
Mr. PLATT: I was literally as well as emotionally moved by her flow. Yet somehow throughout the whole performance she continued to buff my nails. After she finished with her poem and my fingers, I was reluctant to leave. But I needed to get going to my next appointment. We exchanged names and email addresses just like academics at a conference. I listened this time when she told me her name again. It's Jael. It sounds just like the letters, J-L, she said, shaking my softly smooth hand. I told her that I'd stay in touch. She seemed surprised.
Ms. FREEDMAN: I don't believe in accidents. I believe that everything's on purpose. I believe that if you walk and you fall, it was, you were meant to fall. So him coming in, you know, it's just so clear that that's just how the universe works. Why on that day do I have no gas and I need gas money? And I remember after he left, I thought, wow, I would really love to write something on him. Not just on him but just what came up after meeting him.
We buried love in the darkness and covered it with dirt. We thought we had buried all the pain and the hurt. We are natural born liars. I wish I could give you my eyes so you could see what I see. Maybe then you wouldn't call me a white wannabe. And just know that I'm a person that takes a stand for humanity. I drown in my fears. I make no entry in my diary. As the years accumulate I await my fate. I'm getting older now. Dying is no longer a conversation. As life's breath takes control I make a list of my goals. Time waits for no one. I met a very interesting gentleman who listened to my crimes, nodding his head to the beat of my rhymes. And in that instant I knew that I could no longer play it small. The bartender yells last call while the dealer says winner takes all. We are all natural born winners.
ELLIOTT: When she's not giving manicures at the Mount Washington Spa and Salon, Jael Freedman finds poetry on the streets of Baltimore. When he's not getting a manicure, Tony Platt is a professor emeritus at California State University, Sacramento. His new book is called Bloodlines.
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