Most people, even New Yorkers don't relish driving into the city. But only the most stout-hearted, could get into the Mercantile Building's loading dock, in a "civilian" vehicle, park for an undetermined amount of time, load up (or drop off) and get out alive.
Like a Navy Seal black ops mission, the difficulty and true measure of success in these ventures was based on slithering through a sea of tractor trailers, to the safe haven of one of the two, creative parking spots. This trick was not for the squeamish because this territory was the exclusive bailiwick of eighteen-wheelers. And nothing was more irksome to professional teamsters, whose time was money...than to have a piss-ant like me who didn't belong there, give the impression that they were going to take up space, at one of their five bays.
|A TEAMSTER IS ANYONE WHO HAULS GOODS. THE ROOT WORD "TEAM" REFERS TO WHEN LOADS WERE DRIVEN BY GROUPS OF OXEN, HORSES ETC. UNLIKE THE PHOTO ABOVE, THE MERCANTILE BUILDING'S OPEN-ENDED LOADING AREA WAS ENORMOUS. THIS ENTIRE TRUCK COULD FIT "INSIDE." AT THE FAR LEFT, PLEASE NOTE THE SPACE AGAINST THE WALL...TWO SIMILAR PARKING SPOTS WERE AVAILABLE FOR THE FEARLESS, ON EACH SIDE OF MY TARGET'S LOADING DOCK...INSIDE.|
When I was a kid, it always amazed me that from inside my dad's Ford Econoline van, my unintimidating, short, fat *uncle would have acutely profane shouting matches...complete with death threats...with cutthroat truckers defending their turf.
|"THE WAGON," A 1967 ECONOLINE, DOUBLED AS OUR FAMILY CAR FOR TEN YEARS.|
* I never saw or heard that my foul-mouthed uncle got his ass kicked. I guess nobody cursed better than my him because the truckers always backed down. Then, nothing was funnier than when he hopped out of our wagon...the look on the hostiles's faces was priceless when they realized that they were scared-off by a little meatball with stubby, toothpick legs.
In my early years, I was primarily brought along to sit in the van and tell anyone who came along that my uncle would be right back. But as a young adult, I was sent on my own to these jousting contests, with my mother riding shotgun. Even though mom was no stranger to vile obscenities, unlike her brother, I used diplomacy with the big-rig operators to get what I wanted...and if that didn't work, I just got sneaky.
That last time, (spring 1977) was my smoothest trip. On our way back, mom and I were gloating how easy our potentially lethal task was as I slowed down for a red light at Second Avenue. Hordes of pedestrians crossed our path. But when the light turned green only a single straggler with freaky coke bottle glasses delayed my right turn. He stopped for a second, squinted at us with an impulsive yet awkward expression of recognition as I veered around him. That's when my mother said, "Hey, that was Benji Forster!"
Mom smiled as I accelerated and said, "Do you know the Morty the cat story?" I was familiar with my dad's version so I was glad I let mom give all the gory details (a woman's prospective) during the rest of our ride back to Brooklyn.
In the early 50's, back in the old neighborhood, (Brownsville Brooklyn), my parents were close friends with Benji and his wife Geraldine, (today, I'm sure they would have been called, Ben and Gerrie). Both couples lived in an apartment building on Hopkinson Avenue. Like my mom and dad, the Forster's yearned to start a family and move to a better area. Unfortunately for the Forster's, by the time I was born (my sister was two years older), they found out that Benji could not father children.
Somewhere along the line, (to compensate?) the Forster's got a cat, (way before it was popular to treat an animal like a family member, they spoke about their Siamese house pet as if it was their kid).
Benji Forster (a.k.a. Magoo), got that nickname because of his poor vision. His greatest connection with my father was that they were both musicians. Benji's specialty was violin and keyboard instruments.
When Benji's sight suddenly got worse, he was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease. However, to avoid the strong possibility of blindness there was an expensive operation...that the Forster's couldn't afford.
Soon, Magoo could no longer do his job as a machinist at a tool and dye factory. To eke out a living, he began giving piano lessons. His favorite pupil lived several blocks away, in a ground floor garden apartment, on Herkimer Street. This student was a sullen, unattractive, teenage bride who married an equally unattractive man, fifteen years her senior. She took to the piano so naturally that in a few short months, Benji began bringing his violin and felt like he was getting paid, to play duets with her.
My mom sidetracked the story to explain that the girl's husband severely neglected her. So despite her filling their apartment with beautiful music, he didn't notice. Even when she wasn't playing the piano, her withdrawn personality had blossomed without recognition, as she regularly smiled, sang or hummed new tunes.
One of the disadvantages of living in an apartment house was getting embroiled in gossip especially when the juicy tidbits involve you. Some busybody thought he was doing the husband a favor when he misinterpreted the girl's newly inspired joy, as an affair with the piano teacher. So he saw it fit to tell the husband.
During the next lesson, the suddenly jealous husband came home from work early. In the street, he angrily paced to the beat of the wrongly accused infidels playing, "CARO NOME," (Gilda's theme), from "RIGOLETTO."
|"RIGOLETTO," IS A THREE ACT OPERA BY GIUSEPPE VERDI (above). IT WAS FIRST PERFORMED IN VENICE ITALY ON MARCH 11, 1851. IN IT, THE FEMALE LEAD, GILDA, SACRIFICES HER LIFE TO SAVE HER LOVE FROM HER FATHER'S ASSASSINS.|
When the tragic music stopped and was replaced with laughter, the agitated moron scaled his terrace wall. He brandished a switchblade, burst into his apartment and found the innocent pair at the piano, reviewing their next tune while sipping wine...which turned out to be grape juice.
At the trial, Benji's testimony directly led to the husband's murder conviction. The girl's family, in appreciation of nearly destitute Benji's evidence, provided him with a cash reward. He used the money to save his vision, move onto Long Island and buy a newsstand near the Mercantile Building.
The operation allowed Benji to keep his vision but he was considered legally blind. In certain dark light, he needed a magnifying glass, in addition to this thick glasses, to read. On sunny days, his eyes were so sensitive to the intense light that it was painful to be outside without special sunglasses.
In 1956, my parents moved to Canarsie at about the same time as the Forsters bought their modest rancher in upscale Glen Cove, on Long Island's north shore. And despite long, hard hours, exposed to all kinds of weather, Benji's business, next to a busy subway entrance, did well.
Through the 50's and into the mid-60's, the friendship between the Forsters and my parents dwindled. Then one January when New York City was digging out of a blizzard, Geraldine called my mom. When both women realized that the husbands were taking a snow day, Geraldine suggested that if my folks could brave the single-digit temperature and icy elements that it would be a great opportunity to socialize.
Two months earlier, dad's old car was too expensive to repair and a new one was financially out of the question. Luckily, one of my father's cousins gave dad his 1955, two-tone (blue on blue) Dodge Royal.
|DAD'S ELEVEN YEAR-OLD GIFT LOOKED EXACTLY LIKE THE PICTURE ABOVE...WHEN IT WAS NEW. BUT OUR RUSTED-OUT BLESSING IN DISGUISE WAS NOTHING BUT TROUBLE. IT HEMORRHAGED MORE OIL THAN IT USED GAS, STALLED WHEN THE UNDER-CARRIAGE GOT WET AND PARTS SEEMED TO FALL OFF EVERY TIME HE HIT A BUMP IN THE ROAD.|
Through the bitter winds, my folks embarked at slow speed, on the frozen tundra of our street. Once they got onto main arteries, the roads were better and they had clear sailing on the highway, the rest of the way.
Glen Cove had plenty of snow on the ground but the streets were clear and dry. My folks parked in front of the Forster's house and happily scurried the last few feet, through the bitterness. A frantic Geraldine was already at the door. She didn't even invite mom and dad in as she bundled up to go outside and exclaimed, "Morty got out!"
Morty, their beloved, current Siamese house cat had escaped and was nowhere to be found. Geraldine said, "It's too bright for Benji to be outside, so you have to help me search."
Mom and dad were not thrilled by this turn of events yet they did their best for twenty minutes. Dad recognized the futility and hinted that they should go back by saying, "I doubt the cat would have strayed too far. Did you check for paw prints (in the snow) in the backyard?" Geraldine huffed, "My cat's name is Morty," and kept walking. They were two streets further along when the last of mom's meager pioneer spirit evaporated. When dad got her vibe, in a roundabout way, he again suggested that they return home. But Geraldine droned on about missing her baby. Dad added, "It's eight degrees..." Geraldine growled, "It's fourteen, I just checked!" Mom was a little more direct. Geraldine took great offense and cried, "Around the next corner, there's a park in the forest with starving hawks and other animals that could eat Morty!" After a short pause she added, "And I heard that there might be wolves there too."
My mother took a less strident approach out of respect for her friend's sensitivity but Geraldine wouldn't compromise. Through chattering teeth mom gave it one last try and said, "If your Morty's smart, he's probably scratching at your door right now." When Geraldine pointed to the wilderness ahead and insisted on continuing, mom wished her well and told my father, "Let's go home."
Geraldine did not follow them. When my folks were about to get into the Blue-Bomber, Benji came out wearing giant sunglasses that reminded dad of the original scientists who witnessed the above ground nuclear tests, in the deserts of New Mexico. Everyone was shivering as dad got Benji up to speed. Magoo shook his head and said, "Morty is all Geraldine has...but I understand your situation...plus it's friggin' freezing out here." The two men shook hands and my mom wished them well.
Benji was standing on his porch, shading his eyes with his hand, as dad turned the ignition. The engine made a queer thud that was accompanied by a short, unmistakably sick sound of a tortured, shrieking meow. The motor got freed-up and ran full force for three seconds. Dad turned the car off and ran to open the hood.
The Forster's could not have possibly blamed my folks for Morty seeking the warmth of their engine block. But despite apologies given and accepted, the cat's accidental, yet gruesome radiator fan death, signaled the end of their long-fading friendship. This was proven two years later when the Forsters were invited to my Bar Mitzvah and never responded.
|OUCH ! CARELESS PEOPLE HAVE LOST HANDS IN RADIATOR FANS. SO FOR SAFETY SAKE, A CAGE-EFFECT WAS SOON FEATURED...BUT TOO LATE FOR POOR MORTY.|
Mom finished the Morty the cat story as we pulled up to my father's store. Dad saw us. I thought he came out to help me schlep his goods into the store...but first he said, "Damnedest thing, I just got a call from Magoo..." Mom cut him off, "Yeah we just saw Benji crossing the street..." Dad interrupted, "But he called to warn me that you looked like you were getting cozy with a young fella." Mom said, "What?" Dad said, "That's right, the genius assumed Steve was your boyfriend." Mom mused, "I guess revenge is a dish best served cold." Her pun went over my head as she added, "So you straightened him out...right?" Dad said, "No. I thanked and told him that I would severely deal with you the next time I saw you. Then I said, 'Benji, she was with my son. And I'd think you'd know better after all you've been through than to spread stories.' When he didn't say anything, I said, 'Magoo, you've done it again.'"