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Street of Dreams
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 the former 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. In the windows the chickens were hung by their feet and the geese by their necks - the geese looked like strung up criminals and the chickens looked like nothing but chickens hung by their feet. 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 might wonder.
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 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 happening."
In the back of Jake's mind a memory surfaced like a fish that pokes its head above water to see what is happening onshore. "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 what'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
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 sweepstake 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. What 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 principle."
He turned into Hester Street just as the light was fading, and 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 wouldn't be for the rest of the evening. He knew he would hear Mr. and Mrs. Bloom arguing about their son later -- the crowd he runs 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 nogoodnick.
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 are."
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.
"What will it be with Bella, Minnie? In a few years she's done with the high school, no? Will she want 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 will want 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 will 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 will 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 promises."
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, what'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. "Mine Gott," he mumbled, "how can you go out of business with a pushcart?"
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.
"Mine 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. What do you see? Tell me, what 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 came!"
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 away! 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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