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Along Pell Street you passed the Chinese stores with their show windows five
steps above the sidewalk and their entrances five steps down. Their windows
were filled with onions, gourds and strange greens that no one knew the names
of, even the Chinese.
Along Mulberry Street, in Little Italy there was an Italian cigar factory -
"Manifattura Di Sigari Italiani." For some obscure Latin reason no one could
fathom they also sold cheeses - the blend of aromas mingled and whatever you
bought there, whether it was to smoke or to eat, would bring tears to your
eyes. The cigars smelled of provolone and the cheeses tasted of tobacco.
Between the cigar factory and the Italian grocer was a vacant lot reserved
for the bocci ball court. The "space" as they called it, was once the
Italian butcher shop owned by Emilio Esposito which burned down due to an
explosion. People in the neighborhood said it never would have happened if
Esposito (like everyone else along Mulberry Street) paid his protection.
A few blocks from there was the neighborhood everybody called Jewtown. Along
Orchard Street there was always the corn-fed smell of fresh poultry and
sawdust. In the windows the chickens were hanged by their feet and the geese
by their necks; the geese looked like strung up criminals and the chickens
looked like nothing but chickens. There were legs of lamb
larded with fat from other animals; nothing was wasted. The butchers even
sold fresh hides. What would a housewife do with the hide of a steer you
Everything inside the Jewish butcher store was kosher, clean, and brightly
lit. It smelled of sawdust - it made you think you were in a saw mill rather
than a butcher shop. How different from the smell of musk and spice from the
Greek butchers along Broome Street.
Protection was never necessary in Jewtown shops along Orchard Street. Jewish
stores remained unprotected so long as their clientele remained Jewish, but
if a Jewish man opened a shop that a gentile might patronize, then he too,
had the opportunity to be protected. Protection was not expensive, the cost
varied according to the store's gross sales, the protectors only charged you
what you could afford. You couldn't hide gross sales - the protectors would
come in and check your cash register twice a day.
'Protection from what,' you ask? The answer was simple enough, 'from what
might happen if you were not protected.' This created a nagging suspicion in
Jake Bernstein's mind as the two men in dark suits left his butcher stop on
the eve of Rosh Hashanah. He had insurance for the store and double indemnity
for himself; wasn't that enough? 'No,' they said, 'insurance is to make
amends. It's for after something terrible happens. Protection is different.'
The shorter one removed his cigar at this point and flicked his ashes to the
sawdust covered floor. 'Protection is for keeping something terrible from
In the back of Jake's mind a thought surfaced like a fish that pokes its head
above water to see what is happening ashore. 'Italian mezuzahs to keep the
wolf at bay - imagine paying the wolf to stay away from my door!'
The meat Jake sold usually brought in $250 a day, gross. They wanted ten
percent - he didn't make that much in profit, what with his costs and the
prices he paid. 'Vell, vot's to do?' Jake knew the answer. Just like Meyer
in women's apparel on 1st Avenue, and Pincus in his Hebrew book store, they
were selling to goyim now - just as he was. That meant the mob wanted a
piece of the action. 'Vell vot's to do?' You buy cheaper, sell it for more
and everybody pays the price of your protection. Yet a momentary wave of
anger surged over him - 'The nerve of these people!' He said it aloud, not
caring if they heard him as they stood out on the sidewalk. But vot's to do
- he remembered what happened to Esposito's butcher shop. A brave man,
Esposito! He held out even after they beat him up in the back of the store.
'Gangsters!' They were nothing but gangsters. He pronounced it
'Ging-stuss' in English but to himself he called them farshtunkener in Yiddish.
Well, he would close early tonight. Rosh Hashanah began at sundown... maybe
he would talk it over with Minnie to see what she thought. A husband is the
boss, no question about that... a seat by the Eastern wall... but it
doesn't hurt to talk things over with a wife sometimes. He was eager for the
holiday, since he bought the store things were going well with Minnie and
Jake. They had high hopes for Bella... only yesterday he remembered her on
the sidewalk skipping the rope with her friends "Jacob, Jacob, do you love
me? Yes, no-yes, no?" Jacob's intentions were revealed whenever a girl
missed a step. She was so good in the public school, spoke English like a
goyim. Suppose she married one? Would it matter much to him? To Minnie, yes
- but not that much to him. Some of his best customers were Protestant and
Catholic. 'Dot's the reason for the protection,' he reminded himself.
He smiled warmly when he thought of Minnie, sitting at home by the window,
parting the curtains from time to time waiting to see him stop for a
newspaper at the kiosk. Soon Minnie, soon. It would be twenty-five years this
December. Where did the moments go, Minnie? The millions and millions of
moments spent together. She was so young in the beginning, her carriage so
straight, her hair so black. What a pair they made. Well, she still walks
like a queen, a little heavier, a trifle bent, and the hair not so black. Her
face is changed too... it's the lack of teeth, he thought, the lips grow
thinner. But still - the thought of her at the window of the flat and Bella
doing her homework by gaslight at the dining room table melted his heart and
made him utter a small prayer of thankfulness under his breath, although he
was not a religious man - not by a long shot.
No, Jake was not a religious man, moreover he was determined above all to be
an American. That's why he and Minnie were here in the first place. He
thought back to Bialystock - it paid to be religious in Bialystock, but not
here. He reached way back in the ice box where he had saved the best brisket.
He wrapped it carefully, put on his overcoat and slipped the brisket in his
side pocket. He felt in his other pocket for the sweepstakes ticket he bought
this morning - 'Vat vil I do vit a million dollars? Such a gesheft, I should
haff mine head looked into.' then he turned out the lights.
His route took him along Grand Street to Hester Street. Here the tenements
were cleaner, there were fewer stores on the ground floors, and push carts
did not line the curbs. It was not as nice as his brother's apartment in
Brooklyn, but then his brother had to take the subway to his place of
business. That was the main difference between Jake and his brother in the
first place, Jake owned a butcher shop - his brother worked in a place of
business. But still, he envied his brother's bath tub, Jake could not deny
that. That was one thing Jake was determined to do for Minnie and Bella! To
be able to bathe in one's own house whenever one wanted, instead of a five
cent public bath on Grand Street once a week. 'Vat a luxury!'
But now the problem was the protection. The Rossi family! Some family! Strong
arm bandits they were, just like in Poland. It was no different. They wore
uniforms in Poland, here they wear long black broadcloth coats and smoke
cigars. Like Mr. Abraham Lincoln said, 'It's the same tyrannical
He turned into Hester Street just as the light was fading, he fished down in
his pocket and felt for a nickel. Moe sat in his little kiosk intent on
lighting his oil lamp.
'Paper for the holiday, Bernstein?'
'A fresh one, Moe - second from the top.' He folded the paper, stuffed it
in his pocket and looked up at the third floor parlor windows of 237 just in
time to see the curtain close. In his mind's eye he could see Minnie get up
from the chair by the window and walk to the kitchen. 'Poppa's here,' she
would say to Bella as she passed her at the dining room table. 'Hurry with
your homework, he'll be wanting his tea.'
He met his neighbor Bloom laboriously climbing the stairs to the fourth floor
with two heavy cans of kerosene from the cellar. Bloom put the cans down and
rested while Jake passed him.
'Happy holidays, Bernstein.'
'You should get your son to do that, Bloom.'
'I should do a lot of things, Bernstein.'
'Happy holidays, Bloom.'
That meant that his son wasn't home and probably carousing for the rest of
the evening. He knew he would hear Mr. and Mrs. Bloom arguing about their son
later - the crowd he ran around with, 'You are too easy with him, Zayda.
He's a nudnick - what's the good of having a son who cares nothing about
his mother and father? We might just as well have had a daughter like the
Bernsteins' downstairs.' Their voices would float down the air shaft long
into the night, each of them carrying the fight in turn, neither wanting to
admit their responsibility or the fact that their son David was a no goodnick.
Jake heard the kettle whistle as he opened the front door. It was a whistle
he made himself from an ox-tail as a present for Bella when she was little.
His father had taught him many years ago in Poland how to carve the bone and
fit it to the spout on a kettle, it was one of the few things he learned from
his father. He walked through the dining room, kissed Bella on the head and
handed the brisket to Minnie as she came out of the kitchen. Even after all
these years he hesitated momentarily before kissing her - he kissed her
quickly and said, 'It's a nice brisket. The best of the bunch - how does it
go with you?'
'The place has been cold all day.'
'So... you got oil stoves, no?'
'Two blocks up Hester, my sister has central heating.'
'Don't tell me - she pays $37.50 more than we do.'
'She has hot water too.'
'It was your misfortune to marry a poor man, Minnie.'
Bella gathered her homework and schoolbooks and stood up. 'Are we going to
fight now?' she asked.
'It's Poppa's way of making me feel sorry for him - no, there will not be
a fight, not with the holiday... besides where is the profit in fighting for
something you can't have?'
Jake sat at the kitchen table quietly and waited for his cup of tea. He
stared at the teapot abstractedly, wondering if he should tell Minnie about
the protection. Maybe if he raised prices a little they could get a better
apartment, one with hot water and heat and electric light from a switch on
the wall. Minnie poured him a cup of tea and he inhaled the hot savory steam.
'Think of it, Jake,' she said. 'Hot water - heis wasser - in a bath tub
of your own?'
'I got problems, Minnie, and I ain't sure I can even tell you what they
Minnie sat up straighter in her chair. 'You can't tell me, your wife? Who
can you tell then?' There was an edge to her voice that sounded like trouble
to Bella, who gathered up her homework and disappeared into her bedroom. Jake
watched her go and slowly sipped his tea.
'Vat vill it be with Bella, Minnie? In a few years she's done with the high
school, no? Vill she vant to go on? I think so - high school is not enough
these days. High School was an impossible dream for us, Minnie, but it's not
enough these days - not in America.' He stood up and looked out the kitchen
window. It was dark now and the wrought iron latticework of the fire escape
interrupted the disc of the rising moon. 'She vill vant to go on - she has a
head on her, that girl.'
He came back and sat down again. 'Everything costs more than I can afford,
Minnie, and in this American world one must have everything or nothing - not
just this and that, but everything. I don't know how to tell you, Minnie -
but one thing I know. Bella vill go to college, I promise - there is no
other way.' He put his cup down and took both Minnie's hands in his. 'And
Minnie, you vill live in a house with steam heat and hot water, a place where
you can have a bath whenever it pleases you.'
'Don't make promises, Jake, you know what happens when you make
Minnie wearily got to her feet and walked to the stove. 'Supper will be on
the table - go read your paper, see what the world is.' She called to Bella,
'Come Bella lend a hand to your mominyoo' Then she turned to Jake. 'The
kitchen is my gesheft, get out - go sit in the dining room. Read the news.'
Jake picked up his cup of tea and carried it to the dining room table then
went to the hall closet to get the newspaper in his coat pocket. When he
pulled it out, the sweepstakes ticket fluttered out and fell to the floor. He
picked it up and remembered having bought it from Moe along with yesterday's
paper. 'A dollar for a ticket! Oy, vat's the matter with me?'
The news of course was all bad. More businesses failing. Hard times in the
Lower East Side. Stores for rent - even push carts going out of business.
'Mein Gott,' he mumbled, 'how can you go out of business with a push
At the lower right hand corner of the first page was the sweepstakes number
for December 16th... 46476. He began mumbling again, 'So, now I prove to
myself how stupid I am.' He looked at the number on the side of his ticket.
'46477, there Jake - let that be a lesson to you!'
Then it hit him like a physical blow to the side of his head.
'Mein Gott, Minnie - come here! Bella, Bella, look at this!'
Minnie and Bella trotted obediently into the dining room and saw Jake with
the newspaper in one hand and the ticket in the other. He waved both the
ticket and the paper furiously at them, and with a wild light in his eyes he
shouted, 'Read the paper! Read the ticket! Bella, you don't need glasses to
read - look at the number on this ticket and the number here in the paper.
Vat do you see? Tell me, vat do you see?'
Bella picked up the ticket and read, '46477.'
'Now. Now!' said Jake breathlessly. 'Now the paper.'
Bella read '46476.'
'It was so close,' Jake breathed deeply. 'Minnie, see how close we
Minnie and Bella looked at him as though he'd lost his mind. 'It's the
wrong number, Poppa. You lost,' Bella reminded him.
'Ach, Bella - such a good head on you and yet you cannot see! Vun number!
Vun number avay! No one can come that close without winning. Minnie. Minnie,
it is the sign of mazeltov good times are just around the corner!'
Minnie wiped her hands on her apron, 'Come, set the table Bella - the
dumplings can't sit in the pot forever.'
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