My mom was a spring of knowledge. Had she lived in another era or under better circumstances, I'm certain her raw wisdom combined with a college education would have catapulted her into a great career. Of course, if she did, I may not be sharing this story now.
FOR QUESTIONS, MOM WAS THE APPROACHABLE PARENT. ANYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW, SHE WAS THERE FOR ME. EXCEPT WHEN I WAS TWELVE, SHE HAD DAD GIVE ME THE, "BIRDS AND THE BEES," SPEECH. IN RETROSPECT, SHE SHOULD HAVE HANDLED THAT TOO !
Since I was a teenager, I have been a big fan of the 1950's TV sit-com, "THE HONEYMOONERS." The show featured two blue-collar stiffs, struggling in Brooklyn to provide for their families. The characters were portrayed by Jackie Gleason as bus driver Ralph Kramden and Art Carney as sewer worker Ed Norton. I HAVE BEEN LOVING THE ORIGINAL 39 EPISODES OF THE HONEYMOONERS FOR 44+ YEARS. SO WHILE I WAS IN NEW YORK CITY ON JUNE 26, 2010, I WENT OUT OF MY WAY TO CHECK-OFF A BUCKET LIST ITEM BY POSING WITH THE RALPH KRAMDEN STATUE, (8th AVENUE AT WEST 43rd).
When I was thirteen, in one Honeymooners episode, Norton poked fun of Kramden's cheapness by comparing him to the Collyer brothers. When the live audience erupted in laughter, I didn't understand the joke. So I sought out my mom.
Mom told me, the Collyer brothers (Langley and Homer), were wealthy eccentrics. They lived from 1925 until 1947, in a big brownstone on 5th Avenue at 128th Street, in the Harlem section of Manhattan. In the late 20's, something snapped and these Columbia University graduates shut them self off to the outside world. Although the hermits had plenty of money, when Homer's health began to fail due to rheumatism, Langley ventured out only under the cloak of darkness, to forage for food.
This nocturnal foraging included going through dumpsters at restaurants, grocery stores and butcher shops. At the same time, Langley also started picking trash. Over the course of decades, he obsessively brought home incredible volumes of abandoned junk. This worthlessness was an eclectic mixture of newspapers, books, lamps, baby carriages etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc.
Due to the recluses "need" for thrift, they stopped paying for utilities. One by one, the phone, water, electricity and gas were all cut-off. Due to the poor living conditions, malnutrition and lack of proper medical assistance, Homer lost his eye sight in 1932 and soon became paralyzed.
The long story comes to a sad end in March 1947. Neighbors complained about the stench coming from the Collyer's house. Upon a police investigation, it is believed that a mass of the hoarded material, (piled to the high ceiling), toppled onto Langley and killed him. Homer soon starved, waiting to be fed. To illustrate how much debris was accumulated, after the authorities discovered Homer's body, it took several more days, (which included a manhunt as far as Atlantic City New Jersey), to find Langley...whose far worse decomposing, stinking, rat eaten corpse was only ten feet from his brother's. When the house was gutted, an estimated 130 tons of stuff (95% garbage) was carted away by the Sanitation Department.
TODAY'S CABLE TV SHOW "HOARDERS" HAS NOTHING ON THE COLLYER BROTHERS. HIDDEN BEHIND THEIR TRASH TONNAGE, THE BOY'S BROWNSTONE WAS ROTTING...AND, VERMIN RULED THE ROOST.
According to mom, the Collyer brothers were such a laughing stock that ten years after their death, the humor was still topical enough for a big laugh on the "Honeymooners."
In September of 1973, the Collyer brothers came to mind again.
Gaetano (Gae), (the Italian immigrant buddy of my friend GRAMPS), arranged a job interview for me at, "COZEN'S ANTIQUES." (Gae and Gramps were featured in my June 7, 2010 blog, "SODA, SODA, EVERYWHERE BUT NOT A DROP TO DRINK)."
I mentioned Cozen's to my mom. She said, "I don't know about now but the store had a great reputation dating back to the depression." When I took the interview, it was conducted simultaneously by the twin, mid-50's brothers, (Seymour and Dudley), who inherited the store from their father. We agreed on an eighteen-hour schedule, (Monday, Wednesday and Friday), that fit perfectly around my classes at Brooklyn College. My pay was a dime an hour under minimum wage, "off the books."
Over the years, four-storied Cozen's absorbed the three stores attached to it. In a bygone era, the mega-store was Brooklyn's king of upscale antiques. When I started, the once formidable staff was reduced to the twins, one full-time worker, one part-timer and a bunch of kids like me who worked when I wasn't there.
I met the part-timer Hildy, she was about 50. Due to a clash in our schedules, I didn't see this saleswoman too often but when I did, her clever wisecracking aimed at the cheapness of the brothers was a pleasure to listen to.
The full-timer, Rufus, (also about 50), was a jack-of-all-trades from Barbados. He was there long enough to have worked for the father. A delicate craftsman, Rufus specialized in fixing broken furniture and as an upholsterer.
On my first day, at three o'clock, I was summoned into the office. Hildy had set-out five Styrofoam cups and was making a pot of coffee as she told me it was break time. Dudley handed me two, one-dollar bills. I was sent to the donut shop across the street, to get five pieces of apple cake. I didn't want coffee or apple cake. So I bought, four pieces of apple cake, a French cruller and a chocolate milk.
I came back and gave the change to Dudley. "Hey," he said, "you're twenty cents short." I was taking out the apple cake and said, "I got myself a doughnut and a container of milk." Seymour got angry, "Out of the goodness of our hearts, we supply apple cake and coffee. You should have never taken advantage of us." After Hildy made a sarcastic, "Ahem," sound, Dudley added, "It's okay this time but it will NEVER happen again...will it." And it didn't because whenever I wanted a snack, I paid for it with my own money.
This early rift never healed. In my second week, the frugal businessmen docked me a quarter hour for being ten minutes late. When I challenged this decision, Mr. Moneybags said, "Ten minutes? A quarter hour? What are we talking about fourteen cents? At your age, you shouldn't be so petty." Needless to say, I hated being there every minute of my six months there.
If I wasn't vacuuming, dusting or the like, I spent most of my time (hiding) with Rufus. In the privacy of his workshop, he told me that after nineteen years, Daddy Warbucks and Diamond Jim Brady (as he liked to call them), were only paying him $3.85 an hour. Even though it was also "off the books," it was such a small wage that he occasionally trolled the streets at night looking for discarded furniture that he could refurbish into an saleable antique. He laughed, "When I do, I still only get a pittance of what they get for the finished product. If I complain they say, 'You fix it on our time with our material.' When I say, I invest my own time to bring it in, they say, 'If you don't like the arrangement, don't do it.'"
Rufus said, "My financials are so bad because I support four children, a girlfriend, two ex-wives and three bartenders. My situation is so tough that for fifteen years, I work a second, full-time job as a graveyard shift elevator operator in a hospital. I'm stuck, those tight-ass Cozens don't offer no health insurance or benefits of any kind."
Once he and I were making a delivery and Rufus said, "The Cozens could squeeze a nickel so hard that the Indian would be riding the buffalo. To prove it, in all my time with them...other than that friggin' apple cake and shitty-ass coffee, I never got a penny over and above my regular salary. Nothing extra at Christmas, no bonuses of any kind...EVER!" He scratched his chin stubble and said, "Well, except once. One of them was too ill to go to a Mets World Series game in 1969. Those misers are so interchangeable, I'm not sure which one got sick and which one I went with. After a short pause he grinned, "Yeah, yeah, I went with Daddy Warbucks and he smuggled in his own sandwich into the game. Later, he used the water fountain when he was thirsty."
When I doubted him, he added, "Did you notice they bought the identical cars? Believe it or not, it's a little cheaper that way."
The first time I did a solo delivery in the Cozen's Antiques step-van, I broke one of the tail-lights when I parked. COZEN'S STEP-VAN LOOKED A LOT LIKE THIS EXCEPT WITH THE NAME ON IT.
One of the brothers accused me of breaking it. I denied it and suggested that it could have been vandalism. That Friday, I held my breath because I was expecting the price of replacing it to be deducted from my pay. Even though it wasn't, the hassle made me hate them more.
It was worse when Rufus wasn't there because I was exposed to Itchy and Scratchy all day. On one of those days I heard the metallic rattle of the loading dock door going up. The interior side was next to the freight elevator, a regular elevator and an extra wide staircase. I was feather-dusting on the second floor showroom when one of the brothers called me down. A wooden crate stuffed with straw (like from the 1940's), had been delivered. The taller Mr. Cozen used a crowbar to open it. Inside were cut-glass, lamp globes wrapped in Asian newspaper. I was told to be careful and bring all twenty-four to the fourth floor.
To elongate my time away from the brothers while exercising, I decided to carry this precious cargo, two at a time, up the steps. I had never gone higher than the second floor so the storage space on the top two levels were like being in a museum. After considerable dawdling, I found several large pieces of furniture meticulously wrapped in brown paper and labeled, SOLD - McSPICE.
My lamp globe mission was about half complete when I got busted. Mr. Boss Man barked, "What's taking you so long?" I came down and played dumb. He said, "You've been at it over thirty minutes and the crate is still here." That's when I said, "You said be careful...I didn't want to risk having to pay if I broke such an expensive antique...so I was walking them up, two at a time." Big Mr. Cozen was flabbergasted. He controlled his anger but a trace of white gauze oozed from the corner of his mouth as he said, "These aren't antique!" I said, "But they're imported from Japan..." "No," he whined, "they were made last month in China...they get attached to antiques."
That night I groused to my mom. She said, "You're a big boy now. It's up to you. If you don't like the treatment quit or shut up." I knew she was right but I couldn't decide what to do so I changed the subject, "Is the name McSpice common?" Mom said, "I never heard that name in my life. Why?" "Well that was the name of my elementary school librarian...sometimes she would be a substitute teacher." She said, "So?" I said, "Well upstairs at Cozen's, there's a big bunch of furniture marked sold, with the name McSpice on it."
Mom got the phone book and said, "There's only two listings in Brooklyn for McSpice and both just use the first initial, 'H.' I bet it's the same person and they own two houses. They must be rich because one address is on Falmouth Street. The only Falmouth I know is in Manhattan Beach. And the other is on Beverly Road and that part of Flatbush is a ritzy too."
The kids at my grammar school hated Mrs. McSpice. She was probably sixty but looked older. And because of her pancake make-up, she resembled Bette Davis from, "WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE." Far worse was her condescending attitude towards children. I can still remember he phony, sugary-sweet voice saying, "I hope you are as well-behaved as the class that just left."
Aside from not being kid-friendly, Mrs. McSpice was old, deeply wrinkled and scary looking. Even worse, every bone and tendon in her neck was permanently visible, (if you ask me, I can imitate that look by exaggerating a frown).
My next day at work, I asked Rufus about McSpice. "Ah, Miss Hortense. The brothers call that snob Horty...she thinks she's the Aristocracy...me, I call her; an old bitch of a whore." When I laughed, he continued by describing her. I said, "It sounds like the same woman from my school." He then added, "All the McSpice merchandise is in. The Cozens have been putting this sale together for two years...and now we're going to delivery it to Stamford Connecticut next Monday." I said, "It would be weird to see her...I doubt she'd remember me." Rufus said, "This is the biggest sale since I've been here...over $20,000.00. Miss Hortense comes in all the time to check her furniture, add more shit and make installment payments. I bet she comes in this week, to pay off the balance."
The Friday before the big McSpice delivery was a cold, windswept, misty day. It was March first and even though it was thirty-seven degrees and completely raw and miserable outside, I was glad to put the winter (January and February), behind me.
Due to the weather, the store was unusually quiet. I'm guessing that with the big delivery on the horizon, the brothers were extra tense. Rufus was out of the store and Hildy was coming in after I left, so I was at the brother's nitpicking mercy. They were ordering me around worse than ever and being hyper-critical of my work. I was still shivering after buying two pieces of apple cake for the brothers grim when Dudley told me to go outside with a squeegee and water bucket, to wash the windows.
I said, "I don't want to do that." He said, "You have no choice." I said, "It's raining. Nobody washes windows on a rainy day." Dudley sneered, "Just do your job! I will not tolerate insubordination. " "Do my job?" I said. "You should hire a professional. Window washing is not the nature of my job..." He interrupted, "The nature of your job is to do what I tell you to do." Seymour butted in, "I'll find him something else to do." He lead me to a storage closet next to the restroom and told me to scrub the sink, floor and toilet.
I did a slow burn until he came back at ten to five and handed me my $38.70 pay envelope. Every Friday, it struck me funny that they chose frugality over convenience and didn't round my pay up to an even $39.00.
That Monday was a beautiful pre-spring day. I came home after college instead of going to work. My mother didn't notice me puttering around the house until the phone rang. It was Hildy. After mom and I argued about me taking the call she cupped the receiver and said, "Work wants to know why you aren't there." I said, "Tell them I'm out." Mom said, "They know you're here." I said, "Just tell them I quit." Mom said, "Oh no you don't. You're an adult, it's your responsibility...Wait." Mom said, "Someone in the background is telling her what to say. No, no, no...there's two people telling her."
Mom eased up on me and listened as Hildy pleaded for her to encourage me to come in. Mom said, "This lady says this is the biggest delivery in their history...that they have to put on a good show for their best customer...plus that Rufus guy can't put all that heavy stuff on and off the the truck himself." "Tell her they should hire more people today or tell McSpice she'll have to wait till Tuesday." When mom smirked I added, "And tell 'em to give Rufus a big raise." Mom ignored me and said, "This lady...or your bosses in the background can ALMOST guarantee a twenty dollar tip." I said, "Rufus'll understand, I don't care." She said, "They'll come pick you up and bring to the place." I said, " Tell her, to tell the Collyer brothers that after I finish this piece of apple cake, I have to do something more important...I'm going to the park to shoot hoops." Before I walked out, mom told Hildy, "He quit," and hung up. I told you my mom was smart.
Mom thanks for always being there for me, HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY !
AND HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY TO ALL MY READERS AND THEIR MOMS.