The skinny man always sat in the last booth in Grandpa Jake’s candy store, the booth next to the pay telephone. I don’t know when he started coming, if he’d been there when a previous owner ran the store or if he showed up after my grandparents took it over. I don’t know if he lived nearby or where he went when he left the store. But in the mid ‘50s, when I was a little girl, I knew that whenever I visited the candy store the skinny man would be there.
He never wanted anything but black coffee. When his cup was half empty Grandma Leah would immediately refill it so his coffee was never cold. He always had a cigarette in his hand, lighting one from the glowing end of another until the tin ashtray on his table was almost full and Grandma or Grandpa would rush over and replace it with a clean one.
He seemed to be the age of a parent, but something about him made me think he didn’t have children, maybe because he was always so neat and clean. He always wore a freshly ironed white shirt buttoned all the way up and stainless grey pants with a sharp crease. I’d heard enough people complain about their children to know that being a parent made you rumpled.
A few times a day the skinny man would look at his watch and nod to Grandpa who would take an “Out of Order” sign from behind the counter and hang it on the telephone booth so no one would make a call. When the phone rang the skinny man would slowly get up and answer it. When he finished talking Grandpa Jake waited for his nod and then took down the sign.
All day long people came to the man’s booth, talked to him for a few minutes and gave him money. He’d write something in his book and they’d go away. Sometimes the people came back with a big smile and then he’d give them some money.
Once in a while a policeman would come into the store and the skinny man would give the officer an envelope. Grandpa always asked the policemen if they’d like some coffee or a soda but they usually didn’t want anything.
At about 5 o’clock the skinny man packed up all of his papers, put a $5 bill on the table and left. Grandma immediately put this bill in the old cash registrar which closed with a loud clang and then wiped the table.
“Good bye, Sir,” Grandpa would say. The man nodded but didn’t say anything.
I knew he was taking numbers, something that even my ever-patient Grandpa Jake didn’t want to explain to me. However one took a number, and whatever you did with it once you had it, it was, I was told very firmly, none of my business.
Once I found a small white shirt button on the floor. I waited until Grandma was busy outside and slowly walked up to the skinny man. I stood there until he stopped writing and looked at me and, in my most polite, talking-to-grown-ups voice, I said, “Excuse me, sir,
but I found this button and thought it might have fallen off your shirt.”
The man smiled at me and I noticed that his teeth were uneven. “Let’s see,” he said, glancing at the front of his shirt and then carefully checking each cuff. “No, all of my buttons are here. But thank you for your concern. You’re the granddaughter of the people who run this store, aren’t you? I’ve seen you drawing at the counter, you’re quite an artist. What’s your name?”
“I’m Sarah,” I said. “I could do better pictures if I had more colors but the store only carries small boxes of crayons.” I was all set to tell him how old I was and where I lived (things grown-ups always wanted to know) when Grandma came back into the store and hurried over to us.
“Sarah, don’t bother the customers,” she said sternly. “If you don’t behave you can’t come to the store anymore. Go help your Grandfather right now.”
She turned to the skinny man, “I’m sorry the child interrupted your work,” she said. “It won’t happen again.”
“It’s ok,” he said. “Don’t be too hard on her.”
Grandma smiled at the skinny man but she was frowning when she came over to me. She handed me a child-size broom and told me to help clean. I knew I wasn’t going to go up to him again, but I still sneaked looks at the skinny man whenever I could.
I wondered why he only drank coffee all day when he could just as easily have asked for an egg cream. Grandpa Jake made the best egg creams in the Bronx, maybe the best in the world. He’d stand behind the yellowed marble soda fountain and concoct the frothy delight that I knew could be obtained only in this small candy shop located under the Third Avenue El.
An egg cream is a drink that contains neither eggs nor cream. Grandpa Jake made it by mixing just the right amount of ice-cold milk and Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Syrup in the bottom of a Coca-Cola glass, the kind that bulges at the top. Then he’d fill the glass with seltzer, not the seltzer that comes from the supermarket, it had to be seltzer from Grandpa Jake’s special soda spigot.
He’d put the glass under the spigot, insert a tall spoon angled just-so, and the gushing seltzer would ricochet off the bowl of the spoon, fill the glass and create a creamy head of foam. A few quick stirs and there you were—the best drink in the borough. People who wanted to be dainty would use a straw but the proper way to drink an egg cream was to take a big gulp so you got the froth before it melted into the soda.
The four stools in front of the counter were usually filled by Puerto Rican children who twirled around and shot their straw wrappers at each other and onto the floor. If they made a mess Grandma Leah would yell at them. She knew how to say “stop that or I’ll call your mother” and “you’ll be sorry when the police come” in Spanish. The children giggled at her accent but they quieted down. The candy, packaged cigarettes and small bags of loose tobacco and rolling papers and a few toys and toiletries were on the other side of the counter. Customers couldn’t go behind the counter and reach these items, Grandpa had to get the merchandise for them.
Grownups usually stood at the end of the counter and made their purchases, or sat at one of the Formica tables across from the counter, had their drinks, ate toasted rolls with butter and read their newspapers. The store was never very busy.
Grandpa Jake and Grandma Leah were my mother’s parents and they lived with us in a brick house in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx.
Grandpa Jake was always the first person awake in our house. He’d put on a worn plaid shirt and baggy khaki pants, comb his few strands of faded brown hair and walk down the long hallway, stopping at my room to look in. Sometimes I was awake and smiled at him sleepily. He would smile back and wave.
“Shaa…shaa,” he said, putting his finger to his lips so I wouldn’t wake up anyone else. “It’s still sleeping time, time enough for you to have another nice dream.”
I knew he couldn’t stay and talk because he had to get to the store early and be there when the newspapers were delivered, otherwise people would steal them.
Early every morning large trucks drove up and down the city streets slowing in front of stores so the men in the back of the truck could chuck the papers on to the sidewalk. The papers came in large bundles tied with heavy cord that Grandpa Jake cut with a big knife he kept on a shelf behind the soda counter. I wasn’t allowed to touch it.
Grandpa arranged the papers in neat stacks on a wooden stand in front of the store. English language papers like the NY Times, Post, Mirror, Daily News, and Herald Tribune on the top shelf, other papers like El Diario, the Jewish Daily Forward, Amsterdam News and Daily Racing Form were below. He always set aside a fresh copy of the paper so it would be ready for the skinny man when he sat down at his table.
Grandma Leah would arrive at the store later in the morning. Throughout the day she’d go outside and see if the stacks of papers had been disturbed.
“They think this is a library,” she muttered as she carefully refolded the papers and reminded Grandpa to keep an eye on the teenagers who hung out in front of the store and sometimes thumbed through the papers to scan the comics or the movie listings.
People wanted to buy a fresh paper and usually wouldn’t take the one on top of the pile. Grandma put the wrinkled ones in the middle of the stack so the front page would be pressed smooth.
“The youngsters don’t mean any harm,” said Grandpa. “I watch them, they’re not doing anything wrong.”
“They’re not doing anything that will make us a profit,” Grandma said.
Grandma Leah left the store a few hours before Grandpa so she could prepare his dinner. Most days he’d get home just as I was going to bed and I didn’t get to spend much time with him. But on Friday nights he came home a little earlier with a quart of ice cream that we would have for desert. This was the ice cream that Grandpa used to make thick malteds and put in ice cream cones and cups covered with rainbow or chocolate sprinkles
“Some people try to cheat their customers and put in less ice cream,” he once told me, demonstrating how you could put the first scoop in at a slant so the cup filled up faster. “I don’t do such things. It’s not right.”
When he explained things like this Grandma Leah would shake her head. “If it was up to you the ice cream would be free,” she said. I liked the ice cream but his special egg creams were what I was after on my all too infrequent trips to the candy store.
Usually I got to go to the candy only once or twice a month, but in the Summer of 1956 my mother told me that for the next few weeks I would be going there with Grandma Leah every day. I tried to act surprised but I’d been listening to them discuss this possibility for the past few nights when they thought I was engrossed in TV. Somehow my folks never caught on to the fact that I could understand Yiddish well enough to figure out what they were saying when they switched to this language in order to have a private conversation.
“I don’t like Sarah being at the store any more than you do,” my mom had said to my dad. “Do you think I don’t know what kind of element hangs out there? But what can we do? Rachel’s exhausted. Having a child with polio is hard enough, thank the Lord it looks like he’ll recover, but he needs a lot of attention and she has the other children and Morris to worry about. It was ok when Rachel’s mother was able to help out, but now that her father is sick her mother spends all of her time taking care of him,” my mother said. “I have to be there. We can’t leave Sarah alone all the time and I can’t take her with me.”
Aunt Rachel was married to my dad’s brother, Uncle Morris, and her mother and father lived in the downstairs apartment of their two-family brick house which was identical to our house. The houses were connected in the back with a boardwalk to make it easier to visit. Normally my mother and Aunt Rachel would quickly run back and forth several times a day, my cousins and I were old enough to leave alone for a few minutes they said. But now that my cousin Jerry had polio my mother stayed there for several hours almost every day and I couldn’t go with her because it wasn’t safe to enter a house where there was polio.
“If only your mother didn’t insist on working every day,” said my father. “I keep telling them there’s enough money, they don’t have to work so hard. She’s strong but it’s still hard on her and one of these days all that work is going to kill your father.”
“If only,” said my mother. “Don’t start with, ‘if only.’ You know she’ll never believe that money isn’t still tight and he’ll never argue with her. For now it’s for the best.”
I was sorry Jerry was sick but found it hard to hide the fact that I was thrilled by this new arrangement. I would spend my summer in a place where I could have all of the candy I wanted, ride the train that was almost as exciting as a roller coaster and see the exotic sights of the South Bronx—the stores that sold strange foods, the loud Spanish music that blasted from doorways and of course, the skinny man.
Right after breakfast Grandma Leah and I would say goodbye to my mother on the front porch, walk down the stone stairs and wait patiently for the bus that stopped on the corner. Taking the bus with Grandma Leah was more exciting than taking it with my mom. My mother would just drop the proper fare for both of us in the coin box and then we’d sit down. But until I was almost seven Grandma would tell me, “If the driver asks how old you are, you don’t say anything. Just hold up four fingers.” Children under five could ride for free and Grandma did not believe in wasting money.
I wasn’t particularly small for my age and sometimes the bus driver would scowl at Grandma when she deposited only enough money for one person. But she would scowl right back. If he tried to say something to her she’d just shake her short grey curls, widen her pale blue eyes, plant her stout body directly in the doorway and pretend she didn’t understand English. Usually by that time I had walked all the way to the back of the bus and people behind us were banging on the door anxious to get on, so he just waved her in. I was sure that one of these bus rides would end with both of us going to jail.
We got off the bus at the congested Third Avenue and Fordham Road intersection where hundreds of traffic lanes converged, each crammed with cars and trucks angrily blowing their horns. I held Grandma’s hand tightly as we crossed the busy street in front of the big white Sears store and then climbed the steep, metal steps to get the IRT, the overhead train that roared through the Bronx, narrowly missing the bedrooms and kitchens of people who somehow went about their lives oblivious to the passing trains. I stared through the graffiti stained windows and sometimes, if I saw a child my age sitting in an apartment, I waved to them. They almost never waved back.
Finally the train reached our stop. There were no more streets to cross and I could drop grandma’s hand and race down the refuse-strewn block where dust swirled on the sidewalk every time the el roared by. I ran past dimly-lit, dusty hardware stores, past bodegas where oranges, apples and green bananas spilled out the door in rickety wooden boxes, past discount furniture stores with signs in English and Spanish offering layaway plans on cut velvet sofas and puffy leatherette chairs, my eyes fixed on the newsstand at the end of the block.
A big hug for Grandpa and there I was. Literally, a kid in a candy store. An overweight kid with a freshly made egg cream in one hand and in the other hand an empty shopping bag waiting to be filled with goodies.
I was free to help myself to anything I wanted. I filled my bag with different colored wax syrup bottles, each containing a precious drop of thick, sugared liquid, dark yellow peanut butter and molasses Mary Jane candies, long strips of paper speckled with neat rows of pink, yellow and blue candy buttons, and a handful or two of Turkish taffy bars which would break into bite-sized pieces when you banged them against the table.
When I was satisfied with my stash I’d help myself to a coloring book and a new box of crayons and sit at one of the empty tables and draw. If the store got busy or I got bored I’d just go through the unmarked grey door in the back.
There was a whole apartment through that door; it had faded green carpet, not the black and white speckled linoleum that covered the floor in the store. There was a bedroom where you could take a nap if you were tired, a kitchen where Grandma would make my lunch and a living room with a big radio I could turn to any station I wanted while I played with toys I’d left there during previous visits. None of the customers were allowed back there. It was a special place, just for Grandma and Grandpa and me.
I knew that this place was where Grandma and Grandpa and my mother had lived during “the hard times.” Grandpa Jake used to work in a factory that made pocketbooks but the factory closed during the Depression. Grandma Leah told me that when she realized Grandpa could not get another factory job she decided they should have their own business.
“I found the store, I arranged to take it over and to live in the back,” said Grandma. “Your Grandpa doesn’t know how to do such things, I had to do them myself. One day I gave him a piece of paper and wrote down the address. I said ‘here, this is where you’ll work and this is where we’ll live’ and it was done.
Your mother didn’t like living here, there was only one bedroom and she had to sleep on the couch. She was a teenager, very popular, but when she had a date the boy would pick her up at a friend’s house and then bring her back there. I don’t know why she was so fancy, ashamed we were poor. Everyone was poor then. But after a few years we were able to move into a nicer apartment and everyone knew I had done the right thing.”
One day, while I was helping Grandpa, a man I’d never seen before rushed through the store and started talking excitedly to the skinny man who immediately packed up all of his papers and left the store before Grandpa could say goodbye. About 10 minutes later several policemen came in and angrily asked for him.
“I don’t know where he is, sir,” Grandpa said quietly.
The policemen looked around. They even went into our private area in the back. I wanted to tell them that only family was allowed back there but when I started to speak Grandma pinched my arm hard so I kept quiet. Finally they decided that the skinny man had left and, like my grandparents, none of the customers had any idea where he could be.
“There’s a new captain in the precinct and he wants to crack down on gambling,” one of the policemen said to Grandpa and Grandma. “You’d better not let him use your store anymore. You could get arrested along with him and wind up in jail.”
“We don’t do anything illegal,” Grandma said. “We don’t know anything about any gambling.”
As soon as the police left, all of the customers began to talk to each other. Some got up and left the store without finishing their food. Grandpa turned to Grandma. “Do you think they can put us in jail?” he said. “Should we do something? Say something to someone?”
“We have nothing to say to anyone,” Grandma Leah said. “Just watch the customers and make sure no one leaves the store without paying.” I noticed that her hand was shaking as she poured coffee.
Throughout the day people would come into the store, see that the skinny man wasn’t there, and ask about him. “He’s not our business,” said Grandma. “How should we know where he is? Do you need cigarettes? Something to eat? If you want something, tell me, otherwise don’t bother me. I have enough to do running my own store, I don’t bother with anyone else’s business.”
After that day there was no sign of the skinny man. The store felt strange without him, none of the regular customers sat in the last booth. Grandma Leah kept mentioning the money he used to leave on the table. She yelled more often, at Grandpa Jake and at the children who spilled their sodas and at me. It wasn’t as much fun to go to the store.
Sometimes my mom had to help Aunt Rachel at night and my father would go along. Grandpa Jake went to bed early but Grandma and I would watch TV together and drink hot water, milk and sugar. The year before she had taught me to embroider and we worked together while we watched. She eased her substantial girth into the squishy green chair in the living room, a heating pad positioned against her lower back, and with multi-colored thread she planted elaborate gardens on stiff white linen tablecloths. I sprawled on the plastic covered yellow couch, a pudgy youngster with a drooping ponytail, stitching simplified versions of her design around the border of the matching napkins. Every once in a while she checked my work, ripping out a section that contained a sloppily sewn leaf or nodding in satisfaction when there were no mistakes in my work.
On Monday nights we watched Grandma’s favorite show, wrestling. We sewed and ate and cheered for the grunting, sweating, elaborately costumed men as they mauled each other. Our favorite was the 300 pound Haystacks Calhoun who would lift and spin over his head his nemesis, the leopard skin clad Wild Man of Borneo before throwing him the ground.
“Give it to him, give it to him good,” yelled Grandma Leah without missing a stitch of the dainty embroidery. I knew she was waiting for the big splash finish when Haystacks would climb up the ropes and leap onto his opponent. The ring would shake, they’d crash to the ground and the Wild Man would cry out that he’d had enough
Then Grandma and I would wash our dishes, “dishwashers are for lazy people,” she said, and go to bed so we’d be ready for work the next morning.
After three weeks the skinny man just walked into the store and sat down in the last booth as if nothing had happened. He lit a cigarette and nodded to Grandma Leah, obviously expecting her to bring over his coffee.
Grandma and Grandpa looked at each other and started talking softly in Yiddish.“We need to say something to him,” Grandma said.
“What should we say?” Grandpa said. “The police said there’d be trouble if we let him stay, they could take away the store and send me to prison.”
“I think he could make more trouble for us if we tell him to go,” said Grandma. “But we have to say something.”
Grandma and Grandpa came out from behind the counter, ignoring the people who were waiting for service. They walked together to the booth where the skinny man was sitting, arranging his books.
“Good morning, Sir,” Grandpa said. “We haven’t seen you for a while. Is everything all right?”
“Just a few business problems, nothing to worry about,” he said. “Someone thought he could be a big shot, but he was wrong. It’s all been smoothed over. Now how about my coffee?”
Grandpa turned to get the coffee but Grandma put a hand on his arm and he stopped.
“The police were here,” she said. “They told us there’d be trouble for us if we let you come back. We don’t want to offend you sir but we don’t want trouble with the police.
“Don’t worry about the police, that’s all taken care of,” said the skinny man. “And after all of these years how come you still call me sir? My name is Max.”
Grandma stared at him. He’d spoken to her in Yiddish.
“You’re a Jew?” she said.
“Yes, and from your accent I can tell I’m also a landsman. Which part of Warsaw are you from?”
The skinny man and Grandma had a conversation in Yiddish for a few minutes. They talked about Poland—how lucky they were that they’d gotten out before the war, how many people they’d lost, how things were still bad there. They talked about New York, how things had been bad here too, how hard everyone worked to make a living, but still better than Europe. Grandma told him how they’d started the store. The skinny man didn’t talk about his business.
When they were finished talking, Grandma and Grandpa walked back to the counter and Grandma started to pour his coffee.
“You think we can trust him now that we know he’s a Jew?” Grandpa said.
“Don’t be silly. Jews cheated each other in Warsaw, they do it here too,” said Grandma. “But at least we know who he is. We don’t know who the police are. Besides, we need the money he brings us. Obviously he can protect himself from the police and since he likes doing business here he’ll protect us too.
“You see those envelopes he gives the police? What do you think is in there? A blessing from the rebbe? His wife’s recipe for gefilte fish? If we throw him out and he gets mad at us the police have no reason to protect us,” she said. “Now hurry up with his coffee and then see what the other customers want.”
Before Grandpa could bring the coffee the skinny man waved him over.
“Maybe today I’ll try something different to celebrate my return,” he said. He’d gone back to speaking in English. “Let me have one of those egg creams everyone keeps ordering.”
Grandpa brought over an egg cream. The skinny man thanked him, took a small sip and said it was delicious. He switched to coffee later on. When he left at the end of the day he nodded to Grandpa.
“Goodbye sir,” said Grandpa. There was no mention of calling the man Max.
When Grandma Leah went to clean his table she found $10 instead of the usual $5. She
smiled and put it in the cash register.
The only policemen who came to the store were the ones who came for their envelopes.
The next day, when no one was waiting to talk to him, the skinny man came over. “I have something for you,” he said with a smile. “An artist should have good materials to work with.” He handed me a box with a ribbon around it. It was a large sized package of crayons. More than 50 different colors.
I started to thank him but Grandma had seen the exchange, rushed over and took the crayons away from me.
“It’s too much,” she said. “My granddaughter doesn’t need presents. You do enough for us.” She took the box out of my hands and gave it back to the skinny man before I could object.
“Sarah, go play in the back,” she said. “And not a word.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” said the skinny man. He nodded to Grandma Leah and walked back to his booth.
I knew better than to argue with Grandma Leah but when I got home I told my mother what had happened. “Why wouldn’t Grandma let me keep the crayons?” I asked. “Does she think the skinny man stole them? That the police are looking for them?”
“Grandma already told me the story, she did the right thing,” my mother said. “You know you’re not supposed to take presents from strangers.”
“But he’s not a stranger. He’s a landsman,” I said. “He’s from Warsaw, like Grandma.
“He’s still a stranger, not blood, and not someone for you to associate with,” she said. “You’re not a little girl, you have to have some sense about people. Now go wash your hands for supper and stop giving me a hard time.
“Anyway, your cousin is feeling better so I don’t have to help Aunt Rachel so much. Maybe you can go to the store less often. We’ll see. Anyway you’ll be starting school soon. Don’t worry about it. I’ll buy you some more crayons.”
Grandma Leah heard my mother and muttered that she was spoiling me. “A child shouldn’t get everything she wants,” she said. “That’s not the way the world works.”
My mother ignored her and bought me new crayons the next week, a bigger box than the ones sold in the candy store, but not as big as the one the skinny man had given me.
I watched the skinny man carefully for the next few days. I looked at him whenever I heard a police car go by, but he didn’t seem to notice. I thought about what I should do if he bought me another present, but he never did, in fact I don’t remember him ever saying anything else to me.
Once school started I was busy with new friends and activities and rarely visited the store. For a while I asked Grandpa Jake about the skinny man, but he just said the man was fine. Grandpa Jake had heard a rumor that people were beginning to make egg creams with vanilla syrup instead of chocolate. He thought that was a terrible idea and so did I. Pretty soon I stopped asking about the skinny man.
A few years later my mother got a phone call. Grandpa Jake had had a heart attack in the store. They rushed him to the hospital but there was nothing anyone could do.
My father arranged to close the store. He brought home some personal items, but not any candy.
No one could ever make an egg cream the way I liked it.
I keep my embroidered linen tablecloths and napkins stored away carefully.
I don’t know what happened to the skinny man.
Jean Ende is a former reporter, publicist and professor who is currently working on a series of short stories concerning the experiences of Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, NY from the 1940s to the present day. Her fiction and non-fiction pieces have been published in a variety of journals including University of California Press, Jewish Fiction.net, IxChel Press and Crains New York Business and received honorable mention in a GlimmerTrain short fiction competition.