By Ruth Sidransky
I don’t remember whether I was eight or nine or ten. I might have been twelve, probably ten. I do remember that we lived in Brooklyn somewhere near the waterfront, so near that water rats were not an uncommon part of my childhood. We were poor and I was the youngest of seven, the only son.
My mother supported us all. Poppa was too old. He had given up the New World struggle when he began to gray. My mother died without a gray hair, without time for philosophy, without leisure; she died as she lived, working. She was a square woman, with short pudgy hands, jet curly hair and high Slavic cheekbones.
Every morning she’d rise two hours before the family, poke the stove in the basement, straighten up whatever mess there was from the night before, she was not famous for the order and cleanliness of her household, rush to the market, buy whatever she could with what little she had for the first meal of the day. Upon her return from the market she would rouse Poppa.
Grabbing one of her pudgy hands he always said, “Yes, mien kind, I am up.” In the space of no time we were brushed out of our beds and into our clothes that she had ready for us. Breakfast was quick. Some jam, black bread, a little tea from the huge brass samovar on the old round walnut table. And we were whooshed out of the house.
Somehow I always managed to wait for her under the steps of our ugly old house, wait until she emerged so that I could walk proudly with her to Havemayer Street. Within minutes she was out, carrying a large paper bag on one arm, and a black worn shopping bag on the other arm. Each bag was full, brimming with buttons and thimbles, needles and thread, bits and scraps of elastic for ladies bloomers, men’s armbands and what have you, bright cheap rayon ribbon and more bits and scraps at the bottom of each bag.
Our meeting each morning was a surprise. Momma never expected me to be there. I should have been on my way to school.
“Benny what are you doing here?”
“Hurry, you’ll be late for school.”
She would rush me along the street. I never noticed her woolen gloves with the tips of the thumb and forefinger cut out. I never noticed her heavy non-descript brown woolen stockings, her sweater sticking out of the shabby black cuff of her coat, her thick black babushka wrapped securely around her head. This was her uniform to keep out the blasting cold as she kept her vigil all day long at her Havemayer Street pushcart.
“You cannot stand mit me. Go to school Benny, go with your friends.”
I never won. I ended up in school: fall, winter, and spring. I wonder now if I shall ever be as wise as Momma.
She would stand all day, from eight-thirty in the morning until dusk. She knew to the penny how much her supply of buttons and thimbles cost her. And each hour she could calculate her profit. At the end of the day, if it was a good day, she might have made three dollars. It was never much more than two dollars, and if the weather was especially foul seventy-five cents was all she could expect. At dusk she would rush to the market to buy food for our evening meal, hoarding just a little money for the next morning’s bread.
As much as I loved her, I had other problems, other considerations. I wanted something very much. I have never wanted anything so much since that time. Not too far from Momma’s pushcart an Arcade opened. It should have been a penny arcade, especially in those days. It wasn’t. It was a nickel arcade. Each day on my way home from school I’d pass the arcade with my nose pressed to the glass. There was no glass. I could walk in with the other boys in the class, the boys whose fathers had stores, butcher shops, egg shops, milk stores and watch their faces tickle with glee as they pressed their noses to the mock glass. My pockets were important then. I’d push my hands in as far as they would go, look down at the floor in the Arcade, shuffle my worn shoes in the sawdust and mumble some important phrases.
“Where’s your nickel Benny?”
“I got a nickel but it’s home, yeah, it’s home.”
“Gaway, I don’t believe ya.”
That was Meyer Levin, the rabbi’s son. I hated him. But I remembered what Momma always said when I complained about him.
“Be nice to him. That’s the rabbi’s child. Benny behave! Don’t say no more against him.”
Momma’s words flashed through my mind. So I didn’t punch Meyer Levin. I kicked my feet together. I didn’t say a word. I turned around and went for the exit.
“Hey Benny, don’t get sore, I was only foolin’.”
“I gotta help my mother. I’ll see you tomorrow in school.”
“Okay, but bring some nickels and we’ll come here at three o’clock.”
I kicked up the sawdust to the door and then walked out into the lightly falling snow. It was almost four, and by four thirty it would be almost dark. Momma was waiting. I couldn’t face her. My greedy conscience couldn’t either. If I did go I wouldn’t know what to say to her. I had to think up a story, a good one and not a lie. The problem was pressing. I couldn’t think. And then I heard Momma’s voice.
“Benny!” I heard the cry of anxiety in her voice.
How could I walk so fast? I had nothing to say to Momma.
“Benny, where were you? It’s almost dark. The market closes soon.”
“I’m sorry. We were playing and I forgot the time.”
“All right Benny, all right. Help me close up.”
I held up the open bag and Momma swept all her unsold merchandise into it. The other bag would remain empty. It had been a good day. I wanted to ask for a nickel, perhaps two nickels.
Momma grabbed the tattered awning she used to cover her pushcart. “It was a good day today, two dollars and seventy-nine cents. We can have meat, the first time this week. Poppa will like that. I have some kasha in the house. Onions I have to buy. We have enough bread. A little tea. Some shmaltz. Maybe even a cucumber salad. Benny, my little Benny, what would you like to eat tonight? We can buy something special for you too.”
I was only a small boy. I felt the heat of shame as it crept over my face. I never asked for the nickel.
“Nothing Momma”, I said.
“You sure my little one, I want you should have something extra.”
“Another time Momma, when you make three dollars ask me again.”
She patted my head.
I don’t remember dinner that night. I don’t remember if Poppa was pleased. I don’t remember what my sisters said. I only remember that I had a chance to get my nickel and I didn’t take it.
The days passed. I didn’t see Meyer Levin after school. I had stories ready for him. Good ones too. I never passed the Arcade. I walked two blocks out of my way to avoid it. The weekend came. Saturday Momma stayed home with all of us. On Sunday morning one of the older girls opened the pushcart for business.
Momma and Poppa dressed in their best.
“Benny come with us for a walk.”
I could never refuse Poppa: “Yes Poppa, I will get dressed fast.”
Was this a holiday? I don’t remember that either. Poppa and Momma wanted me, their only son, to walk with them. So I did. We walked through the streets of Williamsburg and Momma and Poppa nodded to all their Brooklyn neighbors. Where were we going? I wanted to move on when they stopped in front of an empty store, not too far from the brownstone where we lived on South Eighth Street.
Poppa spoke. “Well Momma, no more pushcarts for you. I rented this store, now you can sit and rest when there are no customers.”
Momma stood still. “Poppa, you are teasing.”
“You begin on December First. No more standing in the snow. The rent includes heat and electric.”
“Where did you get the money? You stole it?”
“It is money I have saved for many years. I still have more for my funeral, and some left over for yours too.”
Momma reached for Poppa’s hand and held it without another word.
Poppa said, “Benny, here’s money for you.” And he gave me two nickels.
Monday and school the next day. I had a nickel for the Arcade. The other nickel I would save, like Poppa who saved and said, “Money grows when you save it.”
Now I was ready for Meyer Levin and the Arcade. I had the nickel to spend as I wanted. I held the nickel in my hand. I turned the nickel over and over, a new shiny 1914 nickel with an Indian head on one side, and a buffalo on the other side. I walked to school with a new step, quickly.
“Hey Meyer, let’s go to the Arcade after school.”
“Sure thing. Do you have a nickel?”
“Yes, I’ll show it to you later.”
We met, three boys and me and walked to the Arcade.
“Let’s see your nickel.” I slipped it out of my pocket when we reached the curb. It fell out of my hand and down the grating, down to the sewer.
To order the work of Ruth Sidranksy, click on the titles below: REPARATIONS, a beautiful sweeping novel of post-war Europe and the two young American Jews that help the people of the sewers and forests return to the world after the Holocaust.
Click on the title A WOMAN’S PRIMER, a charming throwback to the books for young ladies that now carries advice on money, freedom, courage, and passion from this amazing 86-year-old author.