By Don Cohen
When I was seven or eight and my grandfather was about the age I am now, he told me this story:
I left school in the fourth grade. That was the end of my education, which never bothered me so much, to tell you the truth. I could read. I added numbers in my head quicker than someone with a pencil and paper. What more did I need? I used to say the reason I was successful in business was I never learned subtraction, so I couldn’t have a loss. Later I learned a few things from books, nothing important.
So I was ten years old and got a job as a bakery boy. Six nights a week—of course, not Friday—I swept the floor and put wood in the ovens and carried bags of flour and sugar. There were no laws about children working or not working. My pay? One dollar—a week, not a day—and one loaf of bread every morning. I arrived at Fishman’s bakery at eleven at night and left at seven, seven-thirty in the morning, depending on when the last baking went in for me to clean up after. There was flour in the air like smoke; it was hot all year from the ovens. Frankly, I liked it very much. The bakers smacked the dough and shoveled bread in and out of the ovens and joked all night long. They were friendly to me. They even yelled in a friendly manner. Also I felt like a big shot, out all night working to bring food and money home to my family. In fact, one dollar a week and a loaf of bread every day maybe meant the difference between surviving and not.
We were five children. I was the youngest. My three sisters, being girls, couldn't work; that was unheard of. My older brother went to school. The family could afford only one son to have an education, and it wasn't me. Bernie stayed in school until he went crazy about photography, but that's a different story.
Like a lot of men at the time, my father was a tailor. (He used a needle; in my business I sold millions of needles every year.) He could have been a successful man because he had a specialty and his work was always in demand. Exclusively he made clothing for deformed men: midgets and especially hunchbacks, and sometimes a fellow with one arm or a leg missing. That’s what he learned in the old country and that’s what he did here. He said, “Hunchbacks there will always be,” which today isn’t true, but at the time it was. He was the best tailor of this type in the city; if he’d worked for himself he could have named his price. He used to tell me there was no one in the world who cared for his appearance more than this kind of customer, and there were some who would pay anything for a suit of clothes that fit the way they liked. But the fact is, my father worked for a man named Horowitz who took advantage of him and that’s who got the benefit of his special ability.
This Horowitz would wait at the dock when the immigrants came and pick out a tailor. He gave him a meal or two, found a place for him to live, and put him to work in his shop. According to him, he was helping out of the goodness of his heart. “We Jews have to stick together,” he said. “If someone gave me a hot meal my first day in America . . . etc., etc.” Meanwhile he had a shop full of tailors who worked for next to nothing and made him rich.
Everything bad I know about Horowitz I heard from my mother. She didn't say much, out of respect for my father, but sometimes she couldn’t stop herself. It drove her crazy to see my father work to fill that man’s pockets. Two, three times a year Horowitz would come over with a big smile and a few little cakes. That was his method—a penny-worth of kindness while he robbed you blind. It was after these social visits that my mother said what she thought: how he was a crook and not even an honest crook.
My father stood up for Horowitz:
“The man has to live.”
“What about your family? Don’t they have to live?”
“We’re not living?”
Did he mind working his whole life to make Horowitz a wealthy man? Not as far as he ever said. To tell you the truth, knowing my father, he would have found a way to be poor without Horowitz. If he had named his own price, it would have been too low.
So now comes the time I’m telling you about. I'm on my bicycle coming home from the bakery, with my loaf of bread under one arm. Usually the one they gave me wasn’t in the best shape to sell. So what? I liked this ride home in the morning. There were people on the trolleys going to work, the milkman with his horse and cart delivering milk, all sorts of banging and bumping—crates of this and that unloaded from trucks. At that time you saw horses and wagons and also a few trucks and cars. The automobile was new. There were women throwing buckets of water on the pavement in front of their doors. It was a lively time of day. This particular morning it’s springtime, the sun is shining: wonderful.
All of a sudden I see it lying in front of me in the street. What? A ten-dollar bill. Did I ever see so much money in my life? No. Before I could believe my eyes, I was off my bike and the ten dollars was in my pocket.
Of course I looked to see who might be missing it. A man that lost ten dollars from a business would get fired, if not worse. Ten dollars then was more than the difference between life and death for a family. So there was no question in my mind I had to return it. Maybe I would get a dime for a reward. Any minute now I would see a person crazy with worry. But no. No one. I looked at the ten-dollar bill again to see if it was my imagination, but it wasn’t. Still nobody. I said to myself, What if this person has so much money he wouldn’t notice ten dollars more or ten dollars less? I could hardly believe such wealth was possible, but here was ten dollars and nobody looking for it; maybe it fell out the window of some uptown penthouse and blew on the wind. Meanwhile I’m in the street with people going to work and a man unloading boxes of cabbages from the back of a wagon, looking at me, wondering why I’m standing there with a loaf of bread and a bicycle.
I make myself count to twenty. Still no one. Should I ask if someone lost ten dollars? No. Honest is one thing, stupid is something else. I get up on my bike and ride home, two more blocks, thinking about the sensation I’m going to make.
Whatever I expected, it didn’t happen. No, I'm telling a lie. My brother made a sour remark—I don't remember what, but that you could predict. We never got along until years later. I wasn’t surprised either that Hattie screamed when she saw the money, because she screamed no matter what happened. Fifty years later she was the same: you walked in the door to pay a visit and she screamed because she was glad to see you. She screamed when she heard that Mr. X died or Mrs. Y remarried. She screamed if coffee was a dollar a pound at Waldbaum’s. Hattie was the oldest girl. Enough about her. She’s also a story all by herself.
What surprised me was my mother. She got one look at the ten-dollar bill and that was the first and probably the last time I ever saw my mother frightened. She grabbed me by the shoulders—also something she never did—and asked, Did I want to ruin my life? That made me as scared as she was. Then she brought me into the kitchen and said she knew I was a good boy who wanted to help his family, but how could I do this? She thought I took it from the bakery. I kept saying I found the money on the street. Gradually she began to believe me. Finally the decision was made to wait until my father came home. I went to bed thinking I would never sleep, and when I woke up it was evening. My father and my mother sat at the table in the kitchen with the ten-dollar bill in the middle like the baby waiting for the judgment of Solomon—in this case Solomon was my father and mother both.
Never mind the discussion—Did I take the money, did I not take the money? Where did I find it? How long did I wait? How did I know no one was looking for it? Then I had to show them where I found it. My brother wanted to come but my father said no. So there I was with my mother and father, showing them the exact spot on the street where the money was lying. I could still find that location today. They looked and looked. Who knows what they expected to see? Then back to the apartment and more discussion. The final result was, if there was no news of a person losing ten dollars, we would keep it. In the meantime, it went into my mother’s dressing table.
To tell you the truth, I never saw that money again, and years passed before I saw another ten-dollar bill. What happened to it? One morning the next week, seven oranges appeared, one for each of us, like round flames burning on the kitchen table. Days later the apartment still smelled like oranges. The girls got new dresses, all three at the same time, which was unheard of. Maybe there was more food on the table for a while, not just oranges. Probably my mother saved a few dollars for a rainy day. All this was very unusual, but the most unusual was, my father took a day off from work and gave us a ride in an automobile.
Where did he get it? I don’t know. How much did it cost? Who knows? Why did he do it? I have no idea about that either. As far as I knew, until that day my father never gave a thought to automobiles in his life. What can I tell you? Saturday he announced I wouldn’t work at the bakery that night. He made the arrangements with Fishman’s. Sunday he didn't go to work—an amazing occurrence, believe me. Then he says, “We’re going to the country.” The country! It would have made as much sense if he’d said, “We’re going to Alaska.” He brought us out to the street. There, in front of our building, was an automobile, which of course I didn’t think had anything to do with us, but my father says, “In, children—we’re having a drive in the country.”
The first person who spoke was my mother, and what she said was, “Isaac, you don’t know how to drive.”
He said, “What’s to know? It’s like a sewing machine.”
Well, they both have a pedal and a wheel, but that doesn’t make them the same. Sewing machines don’t bang into other sewing machines or fall off the road. Also, my father didn’t use a sewing machine; he believed till his dying day that hand-stitching was better. But nothing was going to stop this ride in the country. Usually, whatever anybody else wanted was fine with him, but the few times in his life he decided something himself, an army couldn’t change his mind.
So in we get—this is a big black car, open to the sky—and off we go: grinding, lurching, nobody saying a word except Hattie who isn’t saying a word either, but screaming nonstop. I think all her screaming before was practice for this ride in the car. The engine is almost as loud as Hattie. Not quite.
It’s no surprise that my father wasn’t such a good driver. Changing the gears, he forgot steering, and even with his full attention on the gears he didn’t know what to do with them. It was a wrestling match between him and the car with a mind of its own, and the car was winning. Plus, what did he know about how to get to the country?
My mother tried to tell him that maybe he wasn’t meant to be a driver, but he said, “No, no. I see now what I was doing wrong.”
By hook or by crook, we got to the Brooklyn Bridge.
I’d never been in the country in my life. To me, Central Park would have been the country, but I’d never seen Central Park, either. I knew that a few trees, like sticks and whatever, grew in the cracks in the pavement. The sky? A piece of wallpaper between the buildings, sometimes blue, sometimes gray, black at night. Sometimes a few stars. Once in a while, the moon. Even on the bridge, not yet in the country, I couldn’t believe my eyes. So that’s the sky, I thought: gigantic! I held the side of the car so I wouldn’t fall into that big empty space. Crazy, I know, but that’s what I felt at the time.
Meanwhile here we are, seven people in one automobile. My brother is frightened, too, but here’s a chance to show his learning: such-and-such about automobiles—the clutch, the starter—then on to other inventions. Hattie I already told you. Rose is telling Hattie to hsh. Whatever Hattie was like, Rose was the opposite. You’d think she drives to the country every day. Sad to say, she died young. Pearl—this is your mother’s Aunt Pearl—makes a remark about a car full of crazy Jews. She always said exactly what she thought. More than once my mother told her, “My advice to you? Marry a deaf husband.” As it happened, she found a man who enjoyed her sharp tongue, except on a few occasions when he didn’t. Again, another story.
It was the Brooklyn Bridge, so I know we landed in Brooklyn. After that, I can’t tell you. Some streets had big houses with grass all around them. It wasn’t the country but it wasn’t the city, and it was all new to me. My father’s driving didn’t get better and it didn’t get worse. There were a few small mishaps, not what you’d call an accident: once a little bump against another car in front of us. A man jumped out and yelled—he was wearing goggles, which some drivers did then. My father shrugged and said, “Sorry, mister,” and that was that. Once a small scrape against a tree. My mother told him maybe we should go back, but no, on we went.
And then we were in the country: trees like you wouldn’t believe, big rocks, fields with rows of some sort of green vegetable, other places with brown earth as far as the eye could see, waiting maybe for something to grow; a farmhouse here and there, chicken coops, cows standing in a pasture and cows sitting in the grass, comfortable like cats on cushions. The road, of course, was a dirt road; you looked back and saw the dust you’d made. Then a field of grass, a little hill, with rocks poking up, a fence all around it, and sheep—maybe twenty-five, thirty sheep chewing on the grass or bunched together, nudging each other with their heads. How did my father find those sheep? From that day to this, I have no idea. It had to be chance—what would he know about where sheep lived, and if he had known, he wouldn’t have had any idea how to get there. He knew wool, but sheep was someone else’s business, to say the least. But, chance or not, it was like this was the purpose of our trip and the whole reason for the car, the drive to the country, everything. My father drove the car off the road, bouncing on the bumpy grass, and shut off the engine. Suddenly everything was quiet, even Hattie, the only sound the gentle baaing of a few sheep.
We got out of the car and my father goes to the fence and looks at the sheep and looks at us and looks at the sheep again. Some of them looked back, wondering whatever sheep wonder about, others not. There were big ones and little ones, all covered with curly white wool—in some cases, a little gray, to tell you the truth, but mainly white. My father looked at us again and waved his arm at the sheep and said, “So meet my partners in the tailoring business!” With the biggest smile I ever saw on his face before or since: “So meet my partners!”
To tell you the truth, I was looking more at my father than at the sheep. At that moment, he was a more unusual sight to me.
About what happened the rest of that day, I have no memory at all. We found our way home, but how or when we got there I can’t tell you. Did we get lost? I don’t know, and I can’t tell you anything that was said or anything we saw. Did we eat a meal? I don’t know that either. As far as my memory goes, our trip to the country ended there, at that field of sheep.
The next day, Monday, the car was gone and my father was back at work, as if none of this had happened. But to this day, when I think of my father, I remember that moment in the country. My father in his dark suit and white shirt and tie, of course, and of course a hat too, as dark as the suit, but dusty from the road. He was maybe five-foot-two inches tall on a good day, and a little bent over from his work—I was already as tall as he was, and Bernie was taller. My father, the tailor who slaved away in Horowitz’s shop, waving over the fence, happy as a clam, introducing his family to a field full of sheep: “So meet my partners!”