I am walking my son’s dog along Grand Street on the Lower East Side, looking for Leo Gursky’s building. For some reason I remember 509, but I’m not sure. It is Saturday morning. September 25. Shabbos. Sukkot. Hasidic men, wearing black suits, white shirts, wide brimmed hats walk purposefully along the sidewalk. There is a sukkah outside of Noah’s deli. Probably, they will gather there. It is sunny and warm, still summer. I hold my cell phone to my ear, leave a message on a friend’s answering machine. “I know this is crazy, but I’m on Grand Street and I’m looking for Leo Gursky’s building. I wrote down the number, but I left it at home. If it’s not too much trouble, can you find it for me?”
The thing is, Leo Gursky is not real. He’s an invention, a character in The History of Love, a novel by Nicole Krauss, but he lives forever in my imagination, as alive as my maternal grandparents who like Leo Gursky walked these same streets. My grandmother lived on Suffolk Street. She and my grandfather married on Sheriff Street. My grandparents came here during the great waves of immigration in the 1890's leaving a town that was sometimes, Polish, sometimes Russian. I never knew, but I've always wondered whether they lived through pogroms.
Leo Gursky came here sometime after the War, having survived the Nazi invasion of his native village that like my grandparents' village was sometimes Polish, sometimes Russian. He hid in the woods where he listened to shots that killed his mother, killed his brother, killed almost everyone in his village. He lived in forests where made himself invisible. Leo Gursky loved a girl who had left for America just weeks before the Nazis invaded. Now, an old man, waiting for death, he loves her still. I am struck by Leo Gurksy’s capacity for love. He's a funny, quirky man and I adore him.
My friend calls back, leaves a message. Number 504. Number 504 is a brick building wider than it is high, with store fronts, a Jewish bakery, a Jewish grocery, apartments above. It’s shabbos, the stores are closed.
On Sunday morning, I when I step into the bakery, I feel as if I’m stepping back into my childhood, holding my grandmother’s hand, looking into a glass case in a bakery near my great aunt’s apartment on the Upper West Side. My grandmother buys me kicheI, air cookies. Some are flat, others shaped like bow ties. I see them here. I ask the old woman behind the counter if she knows when this building was built. It has to be a pre war building to have been home to Leo Gursky. She looks at me as I’m from outer space. I am. I’m from Maine. She gives a little shrug, maybe sixty seventy years ago. That will do.
Walking later with my daughter in law, I ask her the same question. She studies the brick façade, the way bricks protrude in a design. She studies the shape. The wide cement trim. “It looks a little art deco,” she says. “And it’s only six stories. I’d say the twenties or thirties.”
I return alone, study the façade, trying to figure out which apartment was Leo’s, which was his friend Bruno’s. I imagine their footsteps on the stairs, imagine them knocking at each other’s doors. This is what good fiction does, creates not only a life, but a world, one that when we enter, enriches our lives.