Twenty years ago I began working on a history of the Jewish people of Bessemer, Alabama. Don’t laugh, for there were far more subjects than even I could have possibly imagined. I had family, too, that had lived their whole lives in Bessemer. Of course my father moved there once he married my mother, but he had an Aunt Dora and Uncle Harry who predated him. He remembers taking the streetcar from Birmingham to visit them when he was a boy, and ironically, their apartment was two blocks from where my father would return two decades later to live the bulk of his married life.
He showed me this apartment building often when I was a kid. In fact, every time we’d walk from our house on Fairfax Avenue down 19th Street to the town apothecary, Dad would remark on those visits of his past. He’d tell me about Uncle Harry, Aunt Dora, and their daughter Sylvia Ray. The Sonora Apartments was their home, but other than wondering what Dad was like as a boy, I really had no questions about these distant Bessemer relations, most of whom were deceased.
That they were Jewish, that part of me was Jewish seemed so irrelevant then.
But thankfully, my views and interests changed.
When I began my study, I asked Dad if he knew how I could get in touch with Sylvia Ray so that I could pick her memory about her Jewish life in Bessemer. Dad found her number, I dialed, and when she answered, I introduced myself:
“Hi Sylvia Ray. I’m Terry Barr, Alvin’s son…”
“My God! What’s the matter?”
Let me make sure you get this: I had never spoken to this woman in my life. Dad hadn’t spoken to her in almost thirty years. She had moved to Ohio, and for all practical purposes, I was cold-calling a complete stranger. To her, I could have been anyone, anything, calling for any reason.
She could have chosen to be overjoyed to hear from me, her young cousin; instead she chose what I can only assume was her default position: dread and panic.
I assured her that nothing was the matter, that Dad was still alive, and that all I wanted was to wash and filter her brain.
It’s funny, but I remember nothing more of our conversation even though I’m sure she said some things I eventually included in the history. Was her reaction “typically Jewish?” That if you hear from a long lost relative it has to be bad news because bad news is the story of our people?
I can’t explain this one either, but when Dad passed just three years later, I did not call Sylvia Ray. I didn’t even think to do so until months after his passing, and by then I figured she had surely heard, that is, if she were still alive. And to this day, I don’t know whether she heard, whether anyone called her, or how much longer she lived. For all I know, she could still be alive, a woman in her upper eighties.
She came back to my mind a few years ago when two other familial deaths occurred, both within the same nuclear family.
Not so surprisingly, my father’s first cousin Arnold passed away at the age of 89. Arnold had grown very weak and had all sorts of physical complaints though he never really complained. I spoke to him every few weeks before he died, mainly to hear the one voice that was most like my Dad’s, and partly because I thought Dad would have appreciated my gesture of “family.” But I never much liked Arnold. He had been an Army colonel and ran his business like a small battalion.
And in my view, Dad was his minion.
My mother called me to tell me of Arnold’s death:
“Buddy, Arnold died. I called Frances (Arnold’s wife) yesterday. She said they buried him on Friday.”
“What do you mean? He’s already in the ground, and no one called you or me?”
“That’s what I mean. I wouldn’t have known for who knows how long if I hadn’t called Frances just to check on them.”
If I had known, I would have gone to his funeral, maybe because I felt obligated to represent our branch of the family, but also because I wanted to be there. Like him or not, Arnold had played an integral part in my maturity. For ten summers in a row, I worked at Standard Jewelry Co., the business Arnold inherited it from his father Mose who founded it back in the second decade of the 20th Century. My father started working there in 1951, a year before he married. When he married, the store boosted his salary by a whopping fifty cents an hour.
If you do the math, then you’ll figure out that my mother was worth an extra twenty dollars a week, which was pretty much her grocery money.
I hope the amount had nothing to do with the fact that my mother is a gentile.
While working those ten summers, I got to know Arnold’s two younger sons, Donnie and Barry, both of whom were a good bit older than me. Dad and Arnold were first cousins, and I don’t know if that makes Donnie and Barry my second or third cousins. But I guess it doesn’t matter. They were the boss’s sons, and I was the son of their father’s first cousin, the cousin who managed the store. They were being groomed to take over the business. I was being paid minimum wage to box up and price new merchandise.
Grooming, however, can’t always condition a body. Donnie eventually became a lawyer. Barry would have assumed control of the business had wholesale jewelry as a whole not succumbed to the discount chains, particularly chains like Wal-Mart and TJ Maxx. Who needs quality jewelry when you can buy earrings off revolving, plastic racks or pick necklaces and pendants off a faceless mannequin’s ivory neck?
Barry was closest to my age, and sometimes he and I talked music. I always felt that he would suddenly notice that I was sitting in a back room—the room that was supposedly his office—and feel he needed to try to establish human contact.
“Ugh, Mick Jagger is so annoying.”
“Who do you listen to Barry?”
“Oh, Leo Kottke.”
I was only fifteen. He might as well have said Dick Dale.
Barry contracted rheumatic fever when he was a boy. His heart was damaged, and in a way, it was a miracle that he lived to adulthood. But he did. He used to go hiking in summers through the Canadian Mountains, and his legs grew brown and sturdy. I remember other funny things about us, like when he became Bar Mitzvah, my parents went but didn’t take me. I was only seven and didn’t know what exactly or generally a Bar Mitzvah was.
Still, I would have liked to see it.
I remember my Mom saying how well Barry sang his Hebrew, though no one explained to me why Barry had to sing at all, much less in Hebrew, or how a thirteen year-old boy could become a man.
Somehow, though, I knew enough not to ask why I couldn’t be a Bar Mitzvah boy.
Barry eventually married a woman named Bari. They had a son, too, but thank God even they understood that enough was enough. They named him Ethan. By then I had begun my Ph.D. program, and one spring when I was home, Bari called and asked if I would speak to her high school English class. I was glad to, and though she offered me lunch in the school cafeteria, I declined. I wish I had stayed and gotten to know her better. Had gotten to know them better.
Because had I done so, maybe family would have meant something to us. And maybe I would have never received this call from my mother:
“Well, your cousin Barry died last Friday.”
“They said his heart stopped. I called Frances, and she said he had been fine, but after supper he went upstairs and just collapsed. There was nothing they could do.”
He was only 60.
“Wait Mom. You called Frances again? How did you find out?”
“In the Sunday paper. I saw his obituary. When I called Frances, she said she didn’t call because she just didn’t want to bother me.”
We were talking as I drove home from school (I teach at a small liberal arts college). I pulled into a mall parking lot and sat there, trying to understand. Not so much Barry’s death, as my family. Who were these people? Is this the way we handle our deaths?
It’s like the old Holocaust joke: “I’ve been standing in this line for hours!”
“Why don’t you say something?”
“I don’t want to be a bother.”
Nearly two centuries ago, Jews began choosing to populate the American South. And right at its inception in the 1870’s Jews moved into Birmingham, Alabama. How did it feel to establish businesses, families, lives, in an area that is so dominated by Protestants? Where so few cared whether you lived or died, though of course they certainly cared where you lived and where you were buried.
Growing up, my Dad was taunted as a Christ-killer. What Jew of his era wasn’t? And yet, examine Birmingham’s history, and you’ll find the details of three old and still-thriving synagogues, assorted Jewish delis, an active community center, and downtown businesses that once were the lifeblood of Birmingham commerce: Pizitz, Loveman’s, Parisian. And many smaller ones: Lichter’s Magic Credit, Epps Jewelers, Bromberg’s, Blachs, Levy Loans, Browdy’s, Golbro, and Feeny’s.
And Standard Jewelry Company.
This place that I worked; this place where I spent twelve weeks every summer and some days over Christmas holidays, was a Jewish business. I wasn’t around at its birth, but I did see it when it was healthy and alive.
Because it was a small, incorporated business, Standard Jewelry’s owners—Mose and then his son Arnold—could control their holidays. They observed the “normal” ones: Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Labor Day. And of course Christmas. The staff worked half a day on Christmas Eve, which might not seem so strange. But what was strange, at least to me when I was growing up, was that from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, everybody worked every day: Saturdays and Sundays. Of course, nothing shipped on weekends, but local retail owners could wander in on Sunday afternoon and pick up any merchandise they wanted. For that long month, I hardly saw my father, and when I did, he was usually grouchy and tired.
Workers were not paid overtime during this long early winter grind, but, and this was no trade-off, Standard Jewelry did observe the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. No days off, though, for Passover (when my Dad made matzo sandwiches for work), Chanukah, or Purim.
Does this sound like a big deal? Well, the larger stores—Pizitz, Loveman’s, and Parisian—stayed open on the holiest of days, so don’t discount small stores and their wares.
While I’m sure not every employee of Standard Jewelry appreciated that they were employed by Jews—in fact I know of one woman whose husband, she said, didn’t trust Jews at all—everyone appreciated the seemingly random days off in late September and early October, even if they didn’t understand just why the store gave them these particular off-days.
Were we Jews the only ones the other Standard employees ever knew? I hate to think that anyone judged Jewish people by Standard’s boss, Arnold (or his father Mose whom I didn’t know but who, my Dad reported, used to call all Black men regardless of their age, “Boy”).
As did other businesses of this era, Standard hired Black men mainly for janitorial duties, packaging and wrapping, and deliveries. One of the Black guys I knew best, Freddie King, once applied when the store had an open salesman’s position. I think Arnold granted him an interview, too, but Freddie never had a chance. As Dad said, “Imagine the businesses we deal with being called on by a ‘shucka.’” I neither know how the interview went, or what Arnold told Freddy when he let him down. Freddy quit soon after that disappointment, for how much of your life can you spend making deliveries?
Worse, periodically Arnold tested his Black employees to see if they would steal from him. He’d drop a twenty in the narrow confines of the stockroom when he knew the employee in question would soon be passing by. Of course, when you make $1.65 an hour, seeing a twenty would be mighty tempting. I can’t say what I would have done, but given that we were relatives, I most likely would have turned the twenty in.
That’s not what one employee, at least, did. I no longer remember his name, but he seemed nice enough. Dad told us about it over the supper table.
“He didn’t try to deny stealing the money either, just got his coat and left.”
Was that really stealing, though? Of course, Arnold never tried this trick on a white employee. For them, he had other tricks up his wide white Oxford cloth sleeves.
From the time I was twelve or thirteen, I began listening to my father describe the series of young men who worked with him at Standard. One of these guys Dad referred to as a hippieish sort.
“Mike’s really smart, but his hair is kind of long. And he wears those bell-bottom pants. He says Paul McCartney is a master musician, too.”
In those moments I not only wanted to meet Mike. I wanted to be Mike. When I finally met him at a party my parents hosted at our house, his mod Ray-bans, his skinny frame, and his ultra-cool girlfriend cinched it. He talked to me about McCartney’s solo album, and all I felt was cool.
But over the next few months, Dad started complaining about how “The Boss” showered Mike with favors, with bonuses; how Mike took the occasional day off, then several. How he showed up late, left early, and really didn’t do much while he was there.
And how Arnold seemed to favor him all the more.
“It’s like the more he gets away with, the more Arnold likes him. He even tells Arnold that he’s wrong. Today, he said ‘You’re full of crap,’ and Arnold just laughed.”
It might have been funny, the Colonel and the Hippie, except Mike kept sporting finer and finer watches and rings, and one day, instead of driving up in his bright orange Bug, he roared in on a new Harley.
“How can he afford all that,” Dad asked. “I know what I make.”
Dad drove a used Pontiac, but soon he’d graduate to a Buick “Special.”
Mike eventually quit because even a lazy man gets bored with too good of a thing. Or maybe there was another reason.
The really interesting thing to all of us, my Mom included, was that every new guy Arnold hired in Mike’s place sort of resembled Mike: David, Chuck, Rod, and Rick. All slim, all sort of dark (except David who had shaggy blond hair), and all relatively young, no older than their early 30’s. Things always started out well—at least Dad’s early reports were positive—but eventually, each young man developed an attitude, a posturing that perhaps befit a fast wholesale salesman, but could have been motivated by something else. A sense of entitlement? A knowledge of favoritism? An understanding that all was permissible as long as something else was allowed or never questioned?
The guy I knew best was Chuck. We’d go to lunch together regularly, though he kept ordering ham Po-Boys at Browdy’s kosher-style deli (once, he suffered an attack of acute appendicitis after such faire, and I could only see it as the God of Wrath finally getting around to His vengeance).
We’d talk about music, Chuck’s marriage (he actually married and divorced the same woman three times), and life as a working adult (I was 18 at this time, Chuck, a worldly 22). But once, Chuck told me an odd thing. This was a time in-between marriages, and Chuck had an apartment just a couple of miles from the store, on Birmingham’s south side.
“Yesterday, after I got home, the doorbell buzzed. I opened it, and there was the Boss. He came in for a while, had a drink, and talked to me about girls. The kind of girls he thought I should be taking out and, you know…” and then he whispered this part, “…fuckin’.”
The Boss, at this time, was in his mid-fifties.
“He says I should ask Lynn out, that he’ll help me.”
Lynn was the Boss’s personal secretary, a girl of eighteen, just having graduated from high school a year earlier. She was pretty and sweet, and I had come to like her because she was so unpretentious about her looks and her views. She drove a Sunbird and used incorrect grammar.
But she also had a body that men noticed. I noticed it certainly, but then at least I was age appropriate.
Once, I asked Lynn out, but she looked at me as squarely as she ever looked at anyone and said,
“I don’t think that’d be a good idea Bobby.”
Maybe because I accepted her wisdom; maybe because I didn’t get angry or shrink from her, but I think Lynn knew that she could trust me. So one day over lunch, while Arnold was on a business trip, she told me that when he thought no one noticed, the Boss would approach her, get up real close, and start talking to her about her body.
“He said I should think about going out with Chuck, doing things with Chuck.”
I knew I should tell my Dad, but how do you tell a man that his boss, his first cousin, is dirty? Is a pervert? Is a would-be pimp? Or worse?
The best I could do, or at least what I chose to do, was to say in front of both Dad and Mom:
“Have you noticed that the Boss hangs around Lynn’s desk a lot? That he seems to be whispering to her?”
“No, but I’m sure it’s nothing,” Dad said. And then he left the table.
I let it go. But after he told us sometime later about Arnold’s latest favorite young man, I couldn’t.
“Dad, did you ever think that Arnold might have the hots for this guy? That he might be gay?”
I still can’t believe I said it, and in that moment, neither could Dad.
“What do you mean? Sure, he favors the guy, but Arnold’s married with three sons!”
Poor Dad. He never liked the changing world. Life for him was just fine with Swing music and old highways. And it did seem peculiar: this short, balding, heavyset Jewish man fawning over lithe, slim young gentiles or encouraging sex between employees. Mike, Chuck, the others: they were all physically opposite from Arnold and his sons.
Maybe that was the point: the desired but unobtainable other.
I think Lynn went out with Chuck once. I don’t know what happened, but they never tried it again. Chuck eventually married his ex-wife again; they had a family and, the last I heard, are still together. Lynn married, too, and had a little boy, Christian. She showed me his picture once when I visited the store on one of my school breaks. He was a cute boy and looked just like his mother.
I can’t say I loved getting up and going to work at the Standard every summer morning just to put jewelry in brown cloth boxes all day. My Dad insisted we get there by 7:40, though work didn’t start till 8:00. We worked every day until 5:00 with an hour lunch break.
And then there was the Boss and his maneuverings. No, I didn’t love it, but in a strange way, though I wouldn’t have said this then, Standard Jewelry did feel like home.
Of course Dad made it that way. When I first started working, he’d take me to lunch every day and make sure I got Coke breaks like my mother insisted. Dad introduced me to everyone as “Bobby,” the nickname only he and my brother and our maid Dissie called me, so there was that familiarity too.
But over subsequent summers, I got to know my co-workers better. Not so much the Boss’s sons—my cousins—but the typists, stock clerks, and delivery guys. During those summers I did feel a part of an extended family. We avoided the Boss whenever possible, and when he left for the jewelry show in Atlanta for a week each July, we rejoiced. We still worked, but we also relaxed.
In many ways, we were like children getting away with whatever we could.
In my corner workspace, I played rock radio stations—that is, unless the Boss went on a rampage over sales or inventory. My co-workers would find excuses to stand near, listening as Chuck Berry’s “Ding-a-Ling” or Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Pt. 2” moved our aching backs.
But maybe what happened over lunch said it best.
In our downtown Birmingham vicinity were two barbecue joints and a seafood cafeteria that were all within walking distance. We only had the hour and had to punch the time clock out and in. But many of us—Sylvester (a delivery guy who loved “Super-Freak”), Chuck, Shelia (the girl whose husband hated Jews), and Lynn—managed our time as expertly as any seasoned employee. Sometimes on the way back we’d stop in an open field near the store and toss a Frisbee.
At other times, as we passed through a viaduct, we’d stop and get stoned.
I hate to think of the prices I labeled pendants, lockets, and bracelets after such lunches.
It’s a weird thing knowing that in the Birmingham of the 70’s, less than ten years after the Freedom Rides and the bombing of those little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church, a white man’s and a Black man’s and a white woman’s lips could touch the same joint. Such intimacy.
I know that Standard Jewelry Company was a white male-dominated place. That’s the way it was in this era. There were no women sales clerks in store or on the road. But gentiles worked for Jews, and Blacks and whites worked within the same confined space. Straight and gay men, and maybe even a lesbian woman or two took breaks together.
I wonder now what else happened at other times of the year and in all those other years when I wasn’t part of the employment team.
Standard Jewelry Company went out of business in 1987. My Dad got a job with another company, traveling throughout the South for the first time in his life ,at age 61, with lines of jewelry. Arnold simply retired; he had pensions and savings. Dad stayed with Arnold until every last item–shelves and display cases, and all–was sold. Barry went to work at Magnolia Diamonds where he stayed until his death, and Donnie is still a lawyer in Houston.
I don’t know about anyone else. I don’t know if past employees like Lynn or Freddy got word that the store went under. I don’t know if they even know that Arnold, and Barry, and my father are all gone too. You see, when it all ended, it just ended. No one left a forwarding address. No one stayed in touch. And most definitely, as is the way with my family and the place I call home, no one, including me, picked up a phone to call.
Terry Barr’s essays have been published in such journals as Blue Lyra Review, Red Truck Review, Compose, Graze, The Jewish Literary Journal, and The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family, and teaches Creative Nonfiction and Southern Jewish Literature at Presbyterian College.