(In May Bobbi Katz gave an enchanting reading at Cafe Mezzaluna of this memoir. In recent years she has published many children’s poetry books—Nothing But a Dog, The Monsterologist: A Memoir in Rhyme, Once Around the Sun, Trailblazers: Poems of Exploration, We the People, and More Pocket Poems—and won several awards. Here’s hoping she writes more memoir.)
The price of gold was skyrocketing. The day I first walked down 47th St. from the Sixth Avenue subway the street was bustling with people. Hand-lettered signs announcing the latest price of gold and promising to pay the highest prices were taped to the windows of the jewelry stores lining both sides of the street all the way to Fifth Avenue. Bearded Hasidim in black caftans hurried purposefully past the Westchester princesses clutching Christian Dior handbags who stood tentatively before the shop windows. The scene washed over me on the way to the interview. It was only on my way back that I realized the ladies had come to sell rather than to buy. It was only on the way back that I noticed the less dramatic numbers of elderly people, many of them shabbily dressed, going from store to store for estimates. On my way back I had a job. I was going to start work as a “freelance in-house editor.”
I celebrated with a salami sandwich and Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda in a deli wedged between two jewelry stores. Although it was almost half-past three, the activity was as frenzied as one would have expected at lunch hour. Owners and employees of the surrounding establishments were bolting down pastrami on rye and rushing back to their gold mines leaving dill pickles on their plates.
Against this busy background, I savored my sandwich, mentally listing the pluses of my new job. With a steady salary, I wouldn’t need to constantly scramble, cobbling together a living by writing whatever I was asked to write. I’d be able to concentrate on my own work, a long neglected novel. If I worked mornings from six to eight and weekends, I figured I could finish a first draft in six months, the projected term of my job. For perks I’d have this lively stretch of 47th Street to walk across everyday.
I spent the weekend cleaning off my desk and sharpening pencils. Monday morning I fed myself to the subway with the rush hour crowds and emerged once again on 47th Street. It was 8:30. The shop windows were empty. The hordes of people purposefully marching to banks and offices mingled with the arriving shop-keepers. But not everyone merged with the groups in motion. Standing near the building closest to the subway exit was a bearded man with a woolen cap and a resolute expression. He wore a dark canvas overcoat sewn together in large sections with big stitches. His coat was what I imagined cutters’ samples in a factory might look like if combined. He looked as if he belonged in Chelm or at least in some East European shtetel from an earlier time. I immediately gave him a name, Pavel.
A few doors down the street another singular looking man stood under the recess of a building. He was as passive as the first man seemed lively. Less than five feet tall with a long, white pointed beard and soft blue eyes, he had the most amazing proportions I had ever seen: somewhere between the shape of a pear and a triangle. He looked as if he had been molded or drawn by a whimsical artist. A Persian lamb hat with earmuffs in the Nehru style of earlier years was on his head. His narrow shoulders, burdened by a heavy black overcoat, melted into a bulging round body. The coat stopped several inches above the ground. I could hardly stop looking at him. He was Pavel II.
Every morning for the next seven months I was to see the two Pavels in their same places like markers in an oversized book. Everyday started with a sense of surrealism. Winter turned into spring. My fellow workers and I exchanged our heavy winter clothing for raincoats, jackets, and finally summer suits and dresses. The Pavels seemed imperious to the seasons. Their costumes remained the same.
But the most intriguing “Pavel” was a man I called “Pavel of the Evening”. I only saw him after work on my way back to the subway. Pavel of the Evening also wore a long black overcoat, but his hat—similar to that worn by other hasidim— had a battered, jaunty quality. He looked like an Old Testament prophet, with just the gentlest hint of a rogue. His long white earlocks and beard framed an animated, intelligent face. His bright blue eyes took in the scene, including what seemed to be appreciative glances at some of the pretty young women who passed. He never seemed to miss a day. I was intrigued and longed to meet him. Then one evening I had my chance. It was a Friday in early spring. As I entered the subway, Pavel of the Evening was standing near the turnstyle looking distressed. He asked a man for a token and was refused. I walked over to him and asked if I could help.
“You know what is shabbos? Like for you Sunday. I have to be home before dark when shabbos starts, but I don’t have a token.”
“Shabbos is like for me Friday night,” I answered. “Please, let me buy you a token. Wait here. I’ll be right back”
“Better I should go with you. Such a long line. Maybe people will see an old man and let us go first.”
Pavel of the Evening is an operator, I thought to myself.
The people may have seen an old man, but they didn’t let us go first. I bought two tokens and gave one to him. After we went through the turnstyle, I wished him a good shabbos.
“You’re going uptown or downtown?” he asked.
“Which way are you going?” I countered, feeling like a properly wary New Yorker.
“I am going downtown to Brooklyn.”
“Well I am going uptown,” I said. “Have a good shabbos.”
“Wait! I also am going uptown. To the Bronx I’m going. Here,” he said as we approached the top of the stairs. “You’ll carry my bag. You would feel so terrible if such an old man lost his balance and fell down the stairs. For you it would be terrible.”
Outfoxed and amused, I trudged downstairs with his heavy shopping bag in one hand and my tote bag full of books and manuscripts in the other. It would indeed be terrible for me if such an old man lost his balance!
When the B train arrived we got on with the rest of the crowd. Naturally, there were no seats, but my friend solved that problem for himself. “Thank you, young man, for giving your seat to a sick old man,” he said to a tough looking teen in a leather jacket. Perhaps the kid was as taken aback as I was. He got up and Pavel of the Evening sat down with a sigh. He retrieved his shopping bag and smiled up at me sweetly.
“Tell me, you’re a secretary?”
“No,” I answered. “I’m an editor.”
“An editor? For newspapers or for books?”
“For books, educational books,” I added, knowing full well what was coming and wishing I had been wise enough to have told him I was a secretary.
“An editor! Tell me, you’re very important?”
“I’m very unimportant.”
“But still—an editor. That’s an important job.” He paused and put a hand on my arm, yet scarcely touching it. “It was fate that brought us together. I have a book—a wonderful book—all written out already. I will give you this book, and you’ll publish it! Maybe you’ll fix it up a little first. You’ll see. Do what you think is best. You’ll publish my book!”
I tried to discourage him. “Publishing is a difficult business. Besides, the books I edit are school books for children.”
“What is your name,” he asked.
“Bobbi, “ I answered, careful not to be more forthcoming than kindness demanded.
“Bobbi is for Barbara?”
“Bobbi,” he mused, “is a funny name. Barbara you don’t like?”
“So I shouldn’t call you Barbara. You know what is a brochah?” he asked with a gentle, thoughtful smile.
“A blessing,” I answered.
“So I shall call you Brochalah, little blessing. For you that’s a good name. You’ll publish my book. We’ll get rich, the two of us. Rich and famous! All right, little Brochalah?”
I couldn’t help smiling. “And what is your name?”
“My name is Shem Tov. Have you ever heard of the Ba’al ha Shem Tov?”
“The Master of the Good Name. He was a great rabbi of Poland, I think. Are you named after him?”
“Not just named. A direct descendant. A direct descendant from the Ba’al ha Shem Tov,” he nodded with satisfaction.
“Shem Tov, you must listen to me. I can’t publish your book. I can scarcely get my own books published.”
“So you’re a writer, too! What kind of books do you write?”
“I’ve had articles, children’s books, and poetry published,” I confided, “but I want to write a novel for adults.”
“Listen, Brochalah. It’s a small world! I am also a poet. Wait. Listen. I’ll tell you a poem.” He started to recite, fumbled, and shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t remember now. But I’ve made lots of poems. Written down poems. Plenty. You’ll publish my book. You’ll get rich. I’ll get rich. Together we’ll write poems!”
No matter how I tried to dissuade him, Shem Tov remained adamant. He told me he was the brother-in-law of a powerful rabbi. All of his brother-in-law’s followers would want a copy of his book.
He reached into his shopping bag and took out a cantalope. “This, Brochalah, is for you.”
How could I take food from this poor old man? When I protested, he showed me that he had yet another melon in his bag. I still felt uncomfortable. Accepting the melon implied a commitment on my part to help publish his book, something I knew I was unable to do.
“Take the melon, Brochalah,” he insisted. “Such a nice little woman! I’m surprised you want I should eat two melons. Two melons for such an old man. I could sicken and die from eating two melons! You would feel terrible. For you it would be terrible.”
I took the melon, knowing that I would feel terrible anyway.
“When will you come for the manuscript?” he asked before I could even wedge the melon into my canvas bag.
“I could pick it up Monday on my lunch hour,” I said, resigned to his manipulations. “I’ll come by at about one o’clock. “
“No. That’s too early. I don’t have hours until three thirty. You’ll come by a little after five.”
“Sometimes I work much later than five, but Monday I’ll make a point of leaving on time,” I added, unable to stand the look of disappointment on his face. “Tell me. What is it you do on 47th St. everyday?”
“I have a sort of business there,” he answered non-commitally.
As the train pulled into my station, we wished each other a final “Good Shabbos” and said good-by, but I couldn’t get out the door before Shem Tov extracted another promise that I would see him on Monday.
On Monday evening I walked down 47th St. with visions of the voluminous manuscript that was waiting for me. I could see piles of well-fingered yellowing paper. Exhausted after a day of close work, my eyes rebelled against the very idea of the task ahead of them. Surprisingly, they were granted a reprieve.
“I couldn’t bring the book today,” said Shem Tov. “You’ll come tomorrow the same time.”
The next evening he was in conversation with another hasid, who was obviously much more affluent. Shem Tov barely nodded at me. That made me wonder: If I was remembering correctly, Hasidim weren’t even supposed to look at women. Or were women over forty exempt? As I made my way down the street, the thought made it impossible for me to repress a smile.
The third evening Shem Tov was alone. “I still haven’t been able to get the book. But don’t worry. I’ll get it.”
“Don’t you worry,” I answered, selfishly relieved. “Whenever you bring it will be all right.”
But Shem Tov was worried, his lively face became that of a mourner: grief stricken. He obviously couldn’t find his manuscript. “A whole world, a universe, is in that book. Everything I explain. A regular philosophy.”
“Sometimes,” I said, “something I’ve written, something I’ve invested time and spirit in creating disappears. I look through all the flotsam and jetsam on my desk, on my bookcases. I feel sad because I’m sure it’s lost. Then one day it surfaces.”
“Flotsam and jetsam you have? Like from what the ocean leaves on the beach?” I nodded. “I too have flotsam and jetsam,” said Shem Tov. His face brightened at the thought.
Whenever he was alone, he always wanted to talk to me. If I worked late, of course, I usually missed him. But rain or shine, unless it was a Jewish holiday, he was at his usual place. Sometimes he had a job for me. “I don’t like the second line of this poem. You’ll make a new one for me.”
Shem Tov’s poetry was in a class by itself. High flown multi-syllabled words, unique rhymes, oratorical rhythms—bulldozer baroque.
One day he was jubilant. “A famous woman, a Viennese actress, gave me a five dollar deposit on a poem I should write about her. She’ll pay me the rest tomorrow. Ten dollars if she likes it! She’s coming by on her way to the airport. You’ll take a look, Brochalah. You’ll fix it.”
He had penciled the poem on a small piece of paper in his usual style. I assured him the poem he had written was just fine. Shem Tov wasn’t sure. He liked the rhymes of “actress” and “benefactress” but he wasn’t keen on “versatility” and “personality.” Maybe “actuality” or “neutrality” would be better. I had a hard time getting away from him.
The next evening he was crestfallen. “So much work and the actress never came back!”
I told him the same thing happens to other writers all the time. They write poems, stories, even whole books at an editor’s request. Editors change or their plans change, and the work doesn’t get published. “At least you got your deposit. That’s what they call an advance in publishing. Lots of writers don’t even get that.”
He seemed cheered. “An advance. Afterall, I received an advance.” The word obviously pleased him.
Often while we were speaking, men would discretely hand him a coin. Shem Tov would nod or briefly say “thank you.” Once one of these men insisted on staying a few minutes, trying to chat. Shem Tov had nothing to say to him. “Some people,” he told me angrily, “give you a quarter and think they own you.” It took me a long time to figure out Shem Tov’s business. He was kind of a mitzvah machine. A mitzvah is a good act, sometimes rewarded in this life and always rewarded in the afterlife. I never saw Shem Tov panhandle. He provided a unique service. He was there like the corner newsstand, where you put down your money and pick up a paper. The only difference was that Shem Tov’s customers left a quarter and picked up a blessing that would last for eternity.
My job grew increasingly exhausting. There were nearly impossible deadlines. Some days I’d leave the office so weary that I’d cut across 48th Street to avoid Shem Tov. In May I received a tax refund that I dutifully banked. Then one day in June I wandered past the Air France office on a rare lunch hour. Two days later I bought a non-refundable roundtrip ticket to Paris for mid-July. I kept telling myself I had earned the splurge, but my resolution to finish a draft on my novel had faded after only three early morning attempts so my conscience wasn’t altogether clear.
I had expected my job to end July first, when “my” manuscript was to go to copyediting. I discovered when I started working for this educational publisher, that while I was called an editor I was essentially working as an author. The distinguished “author” had merely suggested a series of supplementary readers. He hadn’t seen the manuscript until it was finished. Now he wanted a slew of major changes made before publication. I couldn’t change my air flight without forfeiting my money. The book I’d worked so hard to make engaging and informing was a fragmented muddle, a Humpty Dumpty. I stayed at the office later and later, doing my best to put it together before my trip.
Then one evening Shem Tov was waiting for me , even though the stores were closed for the night. “Brochalah, where have you been? I’ve needed you so badly and you don’t come. Things are happening to me you wouldn’t believe! You know the books of Chaim Potok?” Of course, I did. “They’re making one into a movie. They want I should be in it—the cantor. Last week they came by. ‘Perfect!” I look, they said. ‘Perfect for the part! They’re going to give me a contract. Everything. You’ll go with me to a lawyer, no? And listen, to make good publicity for the movie, I’ve written this poem. You’ll fix it, Brochalah. It should be perfect, too.”
He handed me a penciled poem in his usual style. It was a litany of long adjectives extolling the virtues of Ronald Reagan.
I was confused. How was this poem connected to the movie?
“Tell me, Shem Tov,” I said, somewhat surprised at his choice, “are you really supporting Reagan? Do you think he’s the best candidate?”
“The best candidate? If all I had to do was pick a candidate, I’d probably take Anderson. But at my age, I don’t have time for losers. Only winners. So please, Brochalah, just fix the poem and don’t talk politics.”
“But what has the poem got to do with the movie?”
Shem Tov was growing impatient. “Listen, Brochalah, for every president since Truman, I have written a beautiful poem.”
“Nixon wasn’t President? Of course, Nixon. Stop already with the politics and listen. Usually they send me a letter from Washington on nice stationary. But this time I’ll be a somebody. I’ll be in the movies. This time I’ll be invited right to the White House. The newspapers will take my picture with the president. Why not the television, also? That will make good publicity for the movie, no? So fix the poem, Brochalah, and stop asking questions.
I read the verses. “glorious” and “victorious” were the two shortest words I remember. It was a terrible-wonderful mish mash: a perfect example of Shem Tov at his most flamboyant. He wasn’t satisfied, however, until I agreed to change a couple of words.
“Tomorrow you’ll come at five. Don’t always wait until the last minute.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that tomorrow was going to be my last day at work and that I’d be going to France in a few days. My news could wait.
But when I arrived just after five, Shem Tov wasn’t at his usual post. I was sorry that I had no way of contacting him. I thought that his new career must have started. At least I’d be able to see him when the Potok film was released.
I took my trip and returned to the city. A friend told me he had read that a Potok film was being shot somewhere in Brooklyn. Immediately, I imagined Shem Tov on the set. What an image!
Nothing brought me back to 47th Street for several months. Then one October afternoon I was in the neighborhood. I detoured down 47th Street, not really expecting to see Shem Tov, but hoping I could find someone to ask about him. There he was at his usual spot. He looked more frail than I had remembered, but his face brightened when he saw me.
“Brochalah, where have you been?”
I explained that my job had ended and that I had been having a hard time getting work. “But tell me, what happened with you and the movie?”
His face fell. “So much money they were going to pay me, Brochalah, for one day’s work. So much money I haven’t seen since my bar mitzvah. Actually, more than for my bar mitzvah, can you imagine? But first they took me to a doctor. Something about insurance. The doctor said I was too sick to be in the movie. Too old, maybe, but too sick? To tell you the truth, that doctor made me feel sick for a long time.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, pained by the disappointment on his face. “You would have been wonderful. I know it.”
“Wonderful? Who are we to know?” Shem Tov shrugged his shoulders philosophically.
I made small talk for a few minutes and said good-by, wishing him well and feeling sad I could do no more for him.
“Brochalah,” he called after me. I turned and walked back to him. He touched my arm so lightly with his thin, elegant hand that I could not feel it. “Mazel, Brochalah. You should have mazel.”
Mazel is one of those two-sided words, coined to mean congratulations on one side and luck on the other. Words—the currency of communication—have become as devalued as money—the currency of commerce. Yet Shem Tov had magically restored the word mazel to its full value and given it to me gratuitously, a precious gift, a mitzvah. I walked to the subway, past the showcases of glittering diamonds, holding the word carefully.
Copyright @ Bobbi Katz 2011