Poems and Texts

from “Just Call Me Al” by Benjamin Hollander

from Just Call Me Al


Carlos and Ismail paused each time the natives spoke in the familiar, which in Amerika was
each time they spoke. It was the natural order of their confidence. “Hi.” “How are you?” As if
everyone understood the other to be well. A universalist narrative, to be sure, not to be
doubted. “Fine.”

So it was not surprising and it was no big thing when, as teenagers, Carlos and Ismail, not
wanting to be doubted and wanting for confidence, mistook this familiarity for something
more meaningful, and so decided to mimic it: to make a home for the otherwise isolated names
of persons and places they encountered, as if this was their American mission. To no one was
each his own where each was a sign of the other, where what Carlos and Ismail heard in
sequence was, well, alphabet aligned and crazy, starting with A, because it was in Amerika they
found person and place and their relations in the world. “We are not a narrow tribe of men,”
Uncle Hermann told them, “so take in the world as you play.”


Alley Pond Park
Asylum of Credemore
Allie Sherman
Alex Webster
Alex “I am of the six million”
Else’s predator Alex
Alice of the Jewish community

Person or place, they all came together one day, one year, as if they were family, on the
Highway to the Asylum of Credemore, whose “retards,” that awkward American word known
to be shameful yet said regardless, not only spooked the park thugs who would ridicule them
but so too Ismail and Carlos and their friends, Gingi, Mordico, Berri, who called them this
word as they confused this place with the more infamous because more televised Willowbrook
State Hospital, where that year the city’s media lenses focused on the bruises of naked,
wheelchair-spoked children who the cameras tracked crawling through the rain gutters and
roaming in the basements deep in water and severed electrical wires strung out along the unswept

No one knew how they got there, how they corresponded, but each person and place had in
Carlos’s and Ismail’s minds a room from which to enter and exit, as in the American Howard
Johnson’s, as they moved from one room to the other, as if it were a scene made-up by the
mind, so that together these things were captured in a dream sequence reserved for creatures
who had just arrived, the arrivants, Aliens in Amerika.


It was 1969 and from Alley Pond Park, at one moment, Ismail and Carlos tossed a pigskin
under a row of elms and over the highway and then, in another moment, kicked it soccer style
over another row of elms and over the same highway, so in the next room Allie Sherman (came
resigned as coach of the Football Giants as his star running back, Alex “Red”
Webster, took over, only to have the team collapse that season, while the children fell out of
their wheelchairs and wept on the unswept floors, the pigskins floating in the winter spoondrift
across Ocean Highway and inside the Dark Courtyard of the Asylum of Credemore.

In still another room, a nurse wheeled out Ismail’s Aunt Else, a refugee from Nazi-occupied
Belgium now living in Florida, as she sat tubed and dying of lung cancer not so much in the
Miami heat but fanned under the air conditioned vents in her apartment, where her big shot
second husband Alex, quickening his mission with the Wall street spirit, with his reddened
ate steak raw, smoked his Cubans, and stole money from her safe.

How many Evil Alex’s like this could there be, Ismail thought, like the one in the next room,
Ismail’s “survivor” cousin Alex, “Alex I am of the six million and you who are not a Light Unto
the Nations should know it,” so brother Gadi called him out, among the culture of Holocaust
orphans, each one out-mistrusting the next, coming to the New Land, be it Israel or Amerika, it
didn’t matter.i To become one, Carlos’s mother used to say, you had to act the real big shot,
out-mistrusting the next one on the bread line (hugging the earth for fear of being raptured
and losing your place on the bread line),
the way, as Carlos’ mother remembered, Evil
Alex acted with Else before they married, telling her he owned a supermarket in Flatbush when
it was a half a corner vegetable store on deserted, Polish Henry Street.

1. Carlos had heard Christian Patty’s orphan theory explaining why Israeli Jews seemed to be always looking out for number one, watching their backs. But Carlos didn’t believe it. If her theory was correct, he told her, and the Holocaust Jews who had arrived in the Land without their parents then bred children who inherited their push to the front of the bread line psyche, then it only figured that Muslims in Israel were compassionate, generous,merciful, and always watching the backs of others if, that is, they had inherited the traits of their Prophet Mohammed, a 6th-century orphan

Benjamin Hollander

Benjamin Hollander was born in Haifa, Israel and as a boy immigrated to New York City. He presently lives on the west coast of North America. His books include: In the House Un-American (Clockroot Books/Interlink Publishing, Spring 2013); Memoir American (Punctum Books, Spring 2013); Vigilance (Beyond Baroque Books, 2005); Rituals of Truce and the Other Israeli (Parrhesia Press, 2004); The Book of Who Are Was (Sun & Moon Press, 1997); How to Read, Too (Leech Books, 1992); and, as editor, Translating Tradition: Paul Celan in France (ACTS, 1988). Of his newest book, In The House Un-American, the poet David Shapiro says: “It is difficult to speak of Benjamin Hollander’s masterpiece, so America, so like an inner emigration, as if we had all changed names….A book of this order comes very rarely to our consciousness; we are so censorious of new genres….[T]his book exists as music barely heard in the air becomes music of our ground, grain.”