Wednesday, January 20, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 11- Harry and Al's


I entered 1974 unemployed, a bit heartbroken and once again in search of a place to live. Jimmy was still in charge at 2132 and so I went to see him. By this time Michael Held had moved in to take my old room so I was set up in the unused living room.

I made a “pit” style bed out of a mattress surrounded by wooden crates, which also served as my closets, shelves and a desk. The fact that anyone coming or going had to pass through the living room never bothered me. I was always the last one to go to sleep anyway.

Finding a job was more complex- I was still trying to impress my parents so I went looking for another suit and tie type job similar to the one I had as a Buyers Assistant. After 2 weeks of taking the subway into Manhattan I was walking home along Kings Highway when I passed Met Foods/H and A Grocery. They were just off the corner of East 19th Street and around the corner from 2132. There was a sign in the window that said- “Part time bag boy wanted.” I went in and spoke with the owners- two Jewish fellows in their 60’s named Harry and Al. They were the names behind H and A Grocery.

Harry Falkowitz was a short, stout fellow who smoked the classic “big cigar”. Al Sussman was the opposite, tall and thin. They had been introduced to one another after having failed at their own businesses as a Grocer and Printer, respectively. They were ideal partners.

While one was frugal and cheap- the other was generous and gregarious. While one was the center of a happy family the other was a depressed and disappointed man. I liked them both immediately. They evidently felt the same way about me and so I was hired part time at $2.50 an hour which was the minimum wage at the time.

I quickly progressed from bagging groceries to working the register- which was one of those old National Cash Registers. In other words you had to be able to count and make change- unlike today where the machine tells you what to do. You could also work with the drawer open- which came in handy at “rush hour” each evening when people came in to pick up one or two items to complete their dinners. At times like these we would even resort to writing the prices on the grocery bag and add thenm by hand with a pencil I kept behind my ear, adding the items up before placing them in the bag. The bag, once I had written upon it, served as a receipt. In this way we could work as an extra register if needed.

Before long I was "full time" and being paid as follows; $2.50 an hour for the first 15 hours- this put me on the books in case a Labor Department Inspector showed up. The balance of my pay was in cash- about $5 an hour, which was pretty good for 1974. So at the end of each week I had about $200 – which was almost double what I would’ve made at the suit and tie job. My hours were 9AM-7PM Monday through Friday with a half day on Saturdays.

I lived one week to the next, starting out behind. Consequently I always owed my pay before I got it. This posed no particular hardship as Kings Highway was like a little village and I had accounts at every store I used. For instance- groceries I took as needed and it got written down in “the book”. At the end of the week when I got paid I would pay the store back for all that I had taken. Breakfast was free- consisting of a fresh, too hot to handle loaf of Italian bread smeared with 4 ounces of Philadelphia Cream Cheese and washed down with a quart of ice cold milk. Lunch and dinner were both eaten at Minerva’s, the Greek restaurant across the street from the store. I’d eat and they would mark it down. On Friday nights I would pay them off after dinner and we would begin again. I can still taste their Lamb Stew which was Tuesday nights special.

Laundry was done by the Greek woman on the next block twice a week and I paid her on Saturdays. Clothes were usually paid for in cash when I went shopping on Saturday- but if I needed credit there was no problem. All the store owners knew one another and the employees- if I didn’t pay them Harry and Al would and then take it from my pay. I am proud to say that never happened.

What a cast of characters we had working there! There was Ishmael, or “Izzy” as we called him, who was Puerto Rican and hit on all the women that came in the store. And I mean ALL the women- including the Rabbis’ wife! (She seemed pleased at the attention.)

There was Paul, a Jewish fellow who had gone off to Korea for the war engaged to an Italian girl. While he was over there she met and married another man. Her parents never forgave her and when Paul came home they took him in “until he got settled.” He had been there for over 25 years.

Then there was Bob, a vain and arrogant man, which I later realized was just a cover for him. His wife worked in Real Estate and made lots of money and I suppose his arrogance was the only way he could hold onto his pride.

We had 2 Mexicans in the store- Leo and his younger brother Angelo. Leo was legal- Angelo was not. Leo had a family of 5 living above the store next to ours. Angelo had a room nearby. They were both the brothers of Milton Perez, who delivered the groceries in a station wagon bought for him by the store every 2 years. Milton lived in a house 3 doors down from 2132 and his son Joseph would go on to become a Doctor.

We had a dairy manned by another Bob, a gentle and shy fellow who was a real old time dairyman. He was in charge of the walk in cooler where all the dairy items were stored, along with some beer for Paul who had an unquenchable thirst. The cooler was a funny place- we would drink there, hide there, and once Harry walked in with a customer to show her how “fresh our pot cheese really is” , only to find Paul screwing the local prostitute atop a crate of milk! We lost the woman as a customer but Paul stayed on.

Each evening at 5 PM, just before the evening “rush” would begin, Izzy would take a can of beer and go out front to drink it while leaning on the parking meter. All things being equal I would join him and smoke a joint. All the customers knew us and never said a thing. Officer Russo, the beat cop, would stroll by and Izzy would simply lower his can while talking to him. I would cup my joint in my hand, where it would die out. More than once, as Officer Russo would turn to leave, he would look back and say, “Need a light, Kid?” I never did….

Harry was Orthodox and had his family and the Temple. Al had a wife he didn’t like and a printing press. He kept the press in a separate room in his apartment in Far Rockaway, with the door padlocked. It was his own world. When he found out that I wrote he let me in and gave me a copy of his self published “Poems for Grandkids” by A. Zaydeh. A was short for Abraham, or Al, which was his first name, while Zaydeh was the Yiddish word for Grandpa. So it was really “Poems for Grandkids” by A Grandpa.

Al could be very cruel at times, especially when he had taken his afternoon nap in the "office" above the store. He would come down with two red palm imprints on his forehead from falling asleep at his desk, head in hands. He would take Seconals and sometimes add a "nip" to it. This accounted for his surly behavoir when he came back down. Occassionally this would cause him a problem.

One day Al had come down from his "nap" only to be confronted at the register with a little boy, about 10 years old, tugging at Al's white grocers jacket. "Mister, Mister, do you have any foreign coins?", he implored. "Go away kid, you bother me." was Al's reply in W.C. Fields fashion. The kid persisted and Al turned to him with a mock smile and patting him on the head said,"What a nice little boy- very nice. So you want some change-? Here's your change!" He then took the kids change and threw it out into the middle of Kings Highway. The kid ran crying from the store only to return with his Dad, one of those big fellows with hair on his shoulders and wearing a wife beater tee shirt. "Who took my kids money?" he yelled. "That one." said the kid. At this point Al opened the register and started shoving money at the kid while saying "What a nice boy- here- take some more- nice boy you have there!" The rest of us were in stitches.

But Harry was just the opposite. We would catch steady customers stealing small,high priced items and Harry would let them go. He reasoned that it made better sense to simply pad the next bill than to lose a customer. This infuriated Al, who would expose and publicly ridicule anyone caught while he was in the store. Like I said, they were perfect for one another. Al would throw them out and Harry would entice them back in.

About this time Johnny Carson made a remark on the "Tonight Show" that would jar the country and make Harry and Al very wealthy. It was in 1974 that Johnny Carson, remarking on a sugar "shortage" that was taking place, lampooned the shortage by saying there was a shortage of toilet paper on the way. Panic ensued with people loading up on the stuff. Coffee soon followed- remember this was just after the Arab oil embargo and the US was experiencing it's first shortages (all be it manufactured as opposed to real) since World War Two. So Harry and Al, through their contacts at the distibutor, where able to get tractor trailer loads of all the short goods. We rented extra space in any garage within 2 blocks of the store and added to the maze of sheds in the rear yard, filling them all with toilet paper, coffee and sugar. They made a killing buying at low prices and then selling at the current rate.

But Harry and Al were not mercenaries- they were really nice guys who cared about their employees. And they put their money where their mouths were.

Of the 3 Perez brothers only Angelo still had family behind in Mexico. A Wife and 5 children. His dream was to save enough money to bring them here.
Angelo could ape a few words of English and taught me several foul words and phrases in Spanish. He was a hard worker- about 40 years old. He sent his pay home and lived in a furnished room around the corner from the store. He never got to go home and see his family while saving to bring them here. He was an illegal and this was 1974. They still upheld the immigration laws back then so it was a risky business sneaking in and out.

There had been a slight recession in ’73 going into ’74.The Vietnam War had just wound down and Watergate had given us our first unelected President in Jerry Ford.
There had been talk of some cutback in hours or possibly some layoffs in the store in the fall months leading up to the holidays. Harry had been in and out at all odd hours compared with his usual schedule, which was etched in stone like the Tablets on Sinai. We assumed he had been meeting with bankers to negotiate some financing.

The holidays approached and with them all the excitement that is generated by the prospect of the “Christmas Bonus.” This boiled down to two very basic questions- how much and when? The tradition at Harry and Al’s had always been a weeks gross pay in cash on Christmas Eve just before closing.

Christmas Eve finally arrived and we rushed through all the last minute tasks before closing early for the holiday. Harry and Al were still busy counting the days receipts as the rest of us pretended to work, waiting for the “moment”.

Al and Harry stood behind the counter and we were all gathered on the customer side exchanging best wishes etc as Harry handed out the envelopes with our bonus. One for Milton, Izzie, Leo, Steve, Bob, Paul and myself. Angelo’s name was not called.

Meekly coming forward with hand outstretched Angelo spoke; “Me, dinero?” he implored, eyes showing the shame of asking. He was here illegally and there was no guarantee of a bonus for anyone, let alone this poor fellow. He continued, “ Me mucho trabajo- no dinero?” Al held his hand up, arm outstretched, palm facing Angelo and said, “ You no work bueno- you no dinero.” And then he turned away. The silence, as they say, was deafening. Angelo turned and ran to the basement to be alone with his disappointment and probably anger.

Suddenly from the basement we heard the sounds of laughter and tears. Seeing Harry and Al as they exchanged satisfied glances we knew things were not as they appeared to be. Milton and Leo seemed unusually calm as the rest of us herded toward the basement steps to investigate the cacophony of sounds.

There was Angelo, surrounded by his wife and five children, tears streaming down their faces as they embraced the greatest Christmas gift imaginable- one another.

And then we realized, Harry hadn’t been going to the bankers as we all thought. He had been going to Immigration arranging the visas and job commitment necessary to re-unite Angelo with his family.

There was not a dry eye as we left the store that night. We filed out under the caring gaze of 2 of the wisest men I have ever known, and I believe we had seen the Spirit of Christmas.

My own life was spiraling out of control in the area of drugs at this time. I would wake up in the morning, smoke a joint and head to work. I lived 2 blocks from the store but was always 5 minutes late. This annoyed the hell out of Al. He actually added the 5 minutes up and multiplied it by 300 days a year to prove that I was robbing him of 25 hours a year in wages. But I was a good employee and all the customers loved me so we let it slide.

During the day I would smoke pot in the back of the store, the front of the store, on top of the store, in the basement of the store and even in the walk in cooler. But I was really just waiting for 5 PM when I would take a Tuinol- 3 grain. This would result in my becoming a bit surly and the last 2 hours of the day were the most fun for me.

After work I would go for dinner at Minerva's and frequently fall asleep at the table or the counter. Manny and Bill, 2 of the owners at Minerva's would eventually wake me up with , "Hey Mr. Kid, you want to go home now?" They were always so kind and never made a fuss, even if my inebriated presence bothered some of the other customers. A few years later, while in the Navy, I sent them postcards and gifts from Greece and they were delighted.

I was still living at 2132 and one night a very strange thing happened- a good strange thing but one that I have often marveled at due to the nature of how it all happened.

The tray pictured here belonged to Seth Herman's Grandma Bee Bee. She lived at 1900 Quentin Road in Brooklyn, N.Y. When I was in Juinor High I thought nothing was classier than this tray- which was always filled with goodies like Bridge Mix and other delights we didn’t have in my home.

I’m not really sure of the year but it was around 1971 or so when Bee Bee passed away. I was offered a “souvenir” to remember her by- and I chose the tray. To me it epitomized an era of genteel living, when people had “company” on Saturday nights, or “guests” during the week for cards or Scrabble. TV came along and changed all that.

The real “meat” of this story involves the loss and later recovery of this tray- possibly with the aid of “cosmic” forces beyond our understanding or control.

The tray had been on top of a black steamer trunk which I used as a dresser in 1973 while living at 2132 Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn. Remember in July of 1973 I packed up and moved to Ohio where I ended up engaged to Monica and working in the paint factory.

In December of 1973 I left Ohio by car (a 1964 Ford Galaxy 500) for NY- trunk in tow. But the car didn’t make it and I was forced to abandon it on the side of Route 80 in Ohio within sight of an Arco station. Not being able to hitch with the trunk I carried it over to the service station and asked the owner if I could leave it there for a bit, intending to send for it later. The owner gave his consent and I lugged it up a ladder to the attic/storage area and continued to the airport and a flight to NY.

I mentioned to Seth that I had left the trunk at a service station in Ohio alongside Route 80. And then I don’t think I thought about it again except in a passing- “Gee, I wish I had my trunk back” kind of way.

So here it is, almost 2 years later at 2:30 in the morning and my front door bell rings back at 2132 Ocean Avenue. At the door is Seth with a black steamer trunk on his back going “Ho Ho Ho Merry Christmas!” It was my trunk!

Inside we opened the trunk and I started going through all the things I had missed in the previous 2 years. And the big surprise was that not only was the tray in there- but Seth, who had given me the tray to begin with, had no idea it was in there!

Eventually I got the whole story- he had been driving back to NY from school at Ohio State in Antioch and along Route 80 found himself outside of Cleveland when he remembered that I had lived near there a couple of years back. And then he remembered that I had left a trunk at a service station somewhere alongside Route 80.

Looking up he saw the sign for an Arco station at the next exit and got off. He went in and asked the guy if he had ever stored a trunk for some tall, skinny guy with shoulder length hair. The reply was something like- “Yeah, and if he doesn’t come for it soon we’re throwing it out!” So he took it and drove through to Brooklyn and woke me up.

And that’s when he saw the tray!

We have pondered this little oddity between us over these many years. He didn’t know it was an Arco station- he didn’t know exactly where on Route 80 I had left it- and only a brief whim caused him to stop and check it out. Was it Bee Bee calling out to get the tray? Or just one of those odd coincidences that make life the joy it sometimes can be?

I don’t know- but I still have the tray and, as of this writing, I still have the friend.

Life would go on in this vein for 2 and a half years. The only change would be where I was living. In June of 1975 Mr. Rosenberg came down and knocked on our door. Smiling ear to ear. "Boys," he said, "We've sold the house and we're moving to Florida."

And so 2132 came to an end. It was time to find a new place to live. It was also the start of what I refer to as my "lost year."

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