Business As Usual
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Bernie Schein
It was early spring, 1968, in the small Lowcountry town of Somerset, South Carolina, that Dr. Shmuel Sanavabisch left a note on Lamar Heard’s front door, directly below which, on the threshold, he left a handmade pipe bomb requiring only the timer to be switched on to blow Lamar’s house, and maybe a neighbor’s or two, to smithereens.
The note on the front door:
To: Lamar Heard, Grand Master of the Somerset County Ku Klux Klan
From: White People Against the Klan
The Somerset County Ku Klux Klan herewith is denied the right to freedom of assembly.
Any gathering of two or more Klan members in which references are made to Jews Catholics OR Negroes constitute herewith an “assembly”.
If such an assembly herewish gathers, be warned:
Our weaponry will destroy you.
The timer will be on.
Well, that pretty much did it. Addy Popkin, Herman the haberdasher’s wife, told Mom that for Lamar’s wife, May Ellen Heard, that was the last straw, the one that broke the camel’s back. Addy said that May Ellen told her that she just sat Lamar down right there at the kitchen table and explained to him that he and his buddies were just going to have to find something else to do to occupy their time, at which point Lamar seemed to be looking at her for any suggestions she might have, which she ignored for the moment. She could deal with that later. Lamar, she said, pay attention now. Not only must you find a new hobby—
A new hobby? said Lamar. Honey, this is a cause, our country’s at stake.
And here, according to Addy, May Ellen just flat out put her foot down. Not only, she repeated, are you going to find a new hobby, or “cause,” whatever you want to call it; Lamar, listen to me now: You’re going to have to enjoy that new hobby or fight for your new cause, whatever it might be, God help us, with new friends.
There was only one white man in Somerset capable of such a threatening ultimatum to the Klan, and every Jew in town knew who he was. The only outright outspoken liberal in town, even if only in B’nai Brith meetings, was Shmuel Sanavabisch, the only doctor in town, with the exception of a Gentile, who didn’t count, particularly among the Gentiles. Shmuel was the only one angry enough, suicidal enough, dark enough, insane enough, reckless and abusive enough. But Shmuel was the Gentiles’ family doctor, he delivered their babies. Besides, the Gentiles, as always with radical intrusions, were certain it was someone from out of town, an “outside agitator.” No Somersetonian, they felt, would even think of doing such a thing.
The Jews, however, kept their opinions to themselves, avoiding any mention of it, lest it get back to the Gentiles in the community, which would mean, in their minds, “trouble” for them all. Jews avoided any mention of it just like former Klan members, now frightened out of their wits, at all costs avoided each other, even when at the Dairy Queen with their kids after a Little League baseball game, even at the games themselves, where if one was in the bleachers the other sat in his car and watched from the parking area. They were not so frightened of each other, Dad pointed out, as they were of being in the company of each other, which inevitably triggered their compulsive need to go off on Jews, Catholics, and Negroes. If one Klan member saw another walking his way downtown, he ducked into the nearest business, like Black men on Saturdays stepping off the curb for a white man to pass; except, Dad further explained, that the Klan members were far more scared of each other than Blacks were of whites, which I found interesting.
As for Herman the haberdasher, Addy’s husband, Addy admitted that naturally, for business reasons, he was a bit disappointed. For years he’d lamented that he couldn’t rent his pre-fab homes in the west end of town to Blacks because all his white tenants would move out, and that he couldn’t hire a Black salesman in the store, at least on Saturdays when Negroes shopped downtown which would really have increased his Saturday business, because then he’d lose his white business. And now he could no longer sell robes and hoods to the Klan, a reliable source of income due to his close lifelong friendship with Lamar, who’d played right guard on the Somerset Tidal Wave football team when Herman was the business manager.
And who sold the uniforms to the team back then, when Herman and Lamar were in high school?
Herman’s father, according to Dad, from whom Herman inherited the store.
When they were kids, said Dad, Lamar attended Friday evening shul with Herman, and Herman attended Sunday morning services at Way Baptist Church.
Or as Lamar called it, “ Way Baptist.”
Dad was in the same class as Herman and Lamar. He remembered that back in high school, Lamar took Herman fishing, but then went around telling everyone that Herman talked so much he talked the fish off the bait.
That made Herman a “character”, said Dad, boosting Herman’s social appeal, which got him popular athletic friends and popular dates who were pretty, and would later, until recently, get him profits.
For decades, ever since Lamar had returned from the army and Herman had taken over the store, every Thursday evening after work Herman and Lamar would sit on Lamar’s front porch and, according to May Ellen, stare out over the river, Lamar downing a six pack, Herman nursing a glass of Magen David, boring each other to death.
May Ellen told Addy that that was what happened when love goes stale. Like bread, it loses its flavor. It’s just habit then, she said, like me and Lamar, which brought Addy up a bit short.
She and Herman did talk, Addy later thought, but they were Jews. Were they too just a habit, albeit the Jewish version?
More important, at least to Herman, were the Klan robes and hoods gathering dust on his shelves in the back of the store.
When the Klan a few years back had paraded through town all hooded and robed, Herman had identified them by the shoes they wore. After all, he’d sold them their shoes for years. Had he not known who they were anyway? Not really, Lamar had been his conduit to them. It would have been impolite and presumptuous to have asked, to say nothing of bad for business. Besides, Klan members prided themselves on their secrecy nowadays as much as on anything else. One evening they’d burned a cross on the front lawn where the Somerset Bi-racial Committee met, and the Committee members just waited till the fire had just about burned itself out and the cross reduced to embers, after which they gathered ’round the old campfire , sang, “Let Us Gather By the River”, and roasted marshmallows. Like most people in town, Herman had had an idea who the Klan members might be, but he hadn’t known for sure, and since now he could no longer sell them their hoods and robes, why not turn their names over to the sheriff, Parker Johns, with whom he was also buddies, lifelong friends? The sheriff had played quarterback, naturally, even gone to college at the John Wesley School for Methodists. He was educated, well-off, from an old Somerset family, and belonged to the Country Club. And no, Jews weren’t admitted at that time into the Country Club though some played golf with their friends there, but they weren’t admitted into the Klan either, so socially that was a washout, Herman told Addy, which he could care less about anyway. But those robes and hoods, such a waste...
That might be a wash too, Addy told him, optimism a hope, a gleam in her eye.
And sure enough, it was. Soon after Sheriff Johns had phoned to thank him for his most recent contribution to the community, Addy was running her hands over the gleaming, brand-new police uniforms now hanging majestically in the stock room, all ready and eager to brighten up and relieve those same shelves of their tired old Klan sheets.
He didn’t like Shmuel very much, Herman thought to himself, eyeing the glowing resplendent uniforms soon to emerge from the shadows of the stock room; nobody did. Dismembering the Klan? Meaningless. By then the Klan was already a joke. If Shmuel really wanted to be effective and clear the way for businessmen like himself, he’d eliminate his separate Waiting Rooms. That’s what all the Jews were saying, among themselves, of course. On the other hand,Herman loved Lamar, maybe he’d run over after work for a glass of Magen David. And Parker, he was all right, they got along well, no question. Still, while at first costing him a business opportunity, Shmuel now, regardless his intent, had opened up a new one for him, one at least as profitable. And Shmuel wasn’t asking for a cut.