Thursday, December 10, 2015

"The Great Give Away" by Ruth Marcus Williams

The following story was written by my mother and published in The Jewish Daily Forward on January 18th, 1981. I have posted this here before, on January 18, 2012.  I have always suspected that, if my Mom were alive today, she would have a blog of her own. 

I rarely look through the batch of papers I happened upon that night, and so I can't help but wonder about the timely coincidence of finding it on the eve of the date on which it was first published. The Old Clothes Men are long gone now. We still had them in the 1950's when I was growing up, and that's a part of my own story. But this one is my Mom's;

When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the forties, old clothes men were a common sight, standing under windows and in alleys, shouting “I cash clothes,” in a wailing voice I can still hear. To my Grandfather, haggling with the old clothes man was a sport he mastered and indulged in with a passion resembling an opera.

I was 12 years old when my Grandfather, the old clothes man and I became emeshed in a drama I refer to as “The Great Give Away”, and like many dramas, this one began on a note of hysteria. Mine.

One day I entered my mother’s room and asked her in desperation where my coat was.
“It’s in the closet, where it belongs,” my mother said.

“No, it isn’t,” I said. “Why is it that things are always disappearing around here? Especially mine?”

“Stop being a Sarah Bernhardt. Nothing’s disappearing around here except the things you misplace. If you look hard enough you’ll find it.”

“I’ve already looked hard,” I whined, “but it’s not here.”

I adored the coat in question because it reversed from a wool herringbone tweed on one side to a beige poplin raincoat on the other. I never expected to own another one as beautiful, or as unusual.

“You’re so careless that you probably left it at a friend’s house,” my mother said. “If not, then it’s here. Just keep looking for it. I’m sure you’ll find it by the time I get back.”

I was annoyed with my mother for thinking me careless. Nonetheless, I took her advice, and as soon as she left I resumed my quest. While doing so, my grandfather arrived with an old man. The two of them, conducting a heated conversation half in Yiddish and half in English, barely glanced at me.

Some minutes later (after I had once again searched the closets in vain), it dawned on me that the one closet I hadn’t searched was my brother’s. And so, with high hopes, I entered his room. There, my grandfather was showing the old man my brother’s windbreaker.
“So, how do you like this?” my Grandfather asked the old man.
“It’s dreck,” the old man said, waving his hand in dismissal.

“Dreck!” my grandfather said in a fury. “The jacket’s almost brand new!”

“Humph, your eyes are getting worse every time I see you. The jacket’s old.”

“Phooey,” my Grandfather spat out. “It’s your eyes that can’t see. A garment like this is worth at least four dollars.”

“Look at the seams,” the old man said, tugging at them, “they’re splitting. The jacket’s not worth more than a dollar fifty.”

“You don’t know shmatas, you don’t know a treasure when you see one,” my Grandfather said indignantly.

The old man ignored him. “I shouldn’t give you more than a dollar fifty. I just noticed that the elbows are worn. But, I’m in a good mood today, so I’ll give you a dollar seventy -five.”

“I’ll throw it in the gutter first,” replied my Grandfather.

“Two dollars,” the old man said.

“Two fifty,” my Grandfather continued.

“Two twenty-five. Not one penny more,” the old man said.

“I’ll take it,” my Grandfather said. “But you’re a thief!”

As the old started giving my Grandfather the money I said, "Grandpa, you can't sell Walter's jacket! He Needs it!"

“No he doesn’t. It’s old,” was his reply.

“Grandpa, you know that’s not true.” Then, realizing something else, I said, “You sold my coat, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know anything about your coat. And why aren’t you outside playing? A beautiful day like today you shouldn’t be in the house.”

Tuning him out, I said, “Mister, did you buy a girls coat from my grandfather?” The old man became agitated and replied in a torrent of Yiddish I scarcely understood. In counterpoint to his outburst, my Grandfather kept telling me that he hadn’t sold my coat.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the commotion, the old man opened a sack that had been strapped to his back and began adding the jacket to it.

“Mister, would you please give me back the jacket?” I said.

“Thief,” my grandfather shouted, “you didn’t give me my money!”

“Grandpa, I told you, you can’t sell the jacket.” Then, turning to the old man I said, “Mister, the jacket’s not for sale. I want it back.”

“Here,” he said, tossing it to me. “And as for you,” he said to my Grandfather,“ I don’t want any more business from you!”

"Don’t worry,” my grandfather said. “I don’t give my business to thieves!”

A few weeks later, contradicting themselves, they were once again dickering. But I never found my coat. Until this day, whenever I see pictures of myself wearing it, I sigh with longing. And although my grandfather always denied selling it, I know better.

For another story about my mother, based on the story she told me but never wrote down, see the following;

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