Friday, December 21, 2012

Miracle on Kings Highway - Angelo's Story

I first posted this Christmas piece 3 years ago. The events which took place in my life while working at H and A Foods on Kings Highway in Brooklyn all took place at a time in my life when I was very fortunate to be working for 2 people; Harry and Al; who were willing to put people first in their hearts and deeds. While complete opposites on most things, they were in unison when it came to helping people to help themselves. I have never worked for 2 more colorful, and generous, human beings. And there is never a Christmas which passes by that I don’t think about them and tell this story. It speaks to the humanity within us all.

This is a story of the Christmas Spirit. Every word is true – I know - I was there. These events happened 35 years ago this evening (1974) and still warm my soul each time I relive them. It is what Christmas is all about.
The neighborhood of Kings Highway in Brooklyn was a world of its own. We had the same assortment of shops, delicatessens and candy stores as all the other main shopping avenues, only bigger. H and A Foods, as it was known, catered to the upper crust of the neighborhood. We delivered; which none of the big chains did; and that’s where our story begins…

Angelo was the youngest brother of Milton, who, along with his brother Leo worked for Harry and Al. Milton delivered the groceries in a station wagon bought for him by Harry and Al every 2 years. It was in his name and Harry and Al paid all expenses on it. Milton delivered the groceries and as the store grew he brought his 2 brothers over to help. Leo was the floor manager and Angelo was a “stocker”. Of the 3 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 visit 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.

First a few words are in order concerning Harry and Al. They were partners; 2 Jews perfectly mismatched. While Harry was short, Al was tall. Harry was an optimist, Al was a pessimist. Harry was a doer, Al was a dreamer. You get the point. Anyway, they operated on a system of checks and balances, not unlike our government. They had been in business for 20 years as partners after having failed on their own. It was only after they got together that they achieved any success.
There had been a slight recession in 1973 going into 1974. The Vietnam War had just wound down and Watergate was about to give us our first unelected President in Jerry Ford. There had been talk of some cutback in hours or possibly some layoffs in the store during 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 week’s gross pay in cash on Christmas Eve just before closing. We were all paid on the basis of 15 hours per week on the books at minimum wage ($2.50 an hour) and then the balance of our pay was in cash at a higher rate. This ensured that we made enough cash to live on and also that our Social Security Accounts would not be bare. It also helped when the Labor Dept. Inspector dropped in to make sure we were all on the books.
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. There was 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 true Spirit of Christmas.  

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