During high school I did weekend shifts shifts at a sweater warehouse where my girlfriend, Donna had worked for years. Her family was oddly enmeshed with the owners. Donna's Polish immigrant mother would bring home locally milled sweaters and sew designer labels into them so they could be sold as designer sweaters. Size labels were pinned on and if the order called for more of a certain garment in a size that we did not have, we would just pin on the label of the desired size. Donnas sister, Barbara was 15 years older than we were and she worked there as a manager. Sort of the bosses left hand. She sometimes traveled with one of the owners on business trips. The place was dark and smelled like yeast and we sometimes wore masks so not to get sick from all the mold and the wool, cotton and polyester dust.
Hillside Wholesalers was owned by Harold and Jerry. Upon my initial interrogation Jerry Rosenzweig discovered that he was a childhood friend of my fathers kid brother and knew my dad and his whole family. This was exciting to me and when I told my dad, he remembered Jerry as a rambunctious, short-fused kid. After a few weeks of relaying messages back and forth between them my dad took a ride to Queens Village to visit with Jerry and they hit it off. I enjoyed seeing dad laugh and it was fun hearing Jerry corroborate a lot of the East Side fables I'd heard my dad tell for so long.
Jerry was seedy. He was tall and chubby and he sort of twisted and bucked when he walked because of a bad hip. What hair he had was frizzy, unkempt and riddled with dandruff. He had a bushy mustache that nearly covered his stubby, grey teeth, through which he was always grinning. He gazed without blinking through his bulging, black eyes and I always felt afraid to look away but wasn't crazy about looking directly at him either. He was an elileptic diabetic, a couple of side effects of which were that he had no sense of taste and that his body was resistant to anesthesia and could not be numbed. So his frequent visits to the dentist were occasion for great deals of pain. He claimed to be awake for the whole procedure...whatever it was this time. When I asked if it hurt, he answered, "Shityeah, it hurt!!"
Jerry was tough.
And he had killed somebody.
Someone had owed him money and he had committed premeditated murder and done time and come out and made millions. But to us, he was just Jerry. No one was perfect.
I knew far less about his partner, Harold. Harold was grossly obese, with a voice like Kermit the Frog. When he caught Donna and me fooling around while perusing the vast porn mag collection we'd discovered under an old pinball machine in the basement, he gave us a lecture on how desperate these girls are and how they are all on drugs and had no self esteem and some other shit we just could not believe he was saying. We made no apologies nor did he ask us to keep our hands off, tho the request was implied and we all just wanted to get the hell out of there. I had a stack of them already crammed into my backpack so never needed his pile again.
Harold had always been the bookkeeper and when he'd had emergency back surgery and was out for a while recouprating, Jerry noticed some inconsistencies in accounting. Harold returned to begin putting in a few hours of work and in the first five minutes back Jerry opened the books and pointed to a page that had a few entries which he had highlighted. Harold sat quietly for a few long moments then stood, took his coat off the back of his chair, calmly put it on and left. Jerry claimed never to have heard from him again. He did say, "Let him try to come claim” his half of the business. I was pretty sure that Harold was a dead man, but heard nothing to verify that suspicion.
Knowing my family's dire financial situation, Jerry offered to help. He would consign sweaters that were "seconds" to my dad. Mom would mend them if they had a hole or a thread-pull, and spot-clean any visible stains...the fact was that most of them were perfect. My parents would then sell them at flea markets and they would split the proceeds.
My parents surprised me by agreeing to what would be their first and only attempt at industry. Within weeks my mom had rented space at the weekly St. Nicholas of Tolentine flea market on the border of Jamaica and Flushing, and had purchased two folding tables. They packed up the like-new sweaters, a couple of folding chairs and a shoebox full of fives and singles, drove the mile to the huge church parking lot, schlepped the goods to their spot and quickly learned the tricks of the trade, which included the optimal time to arrive (no later than. 6:30 am or else the the high traffic sites were taken ), when to decide whether to cancel or not (listening to weather forecasts and crossing fingers ), how to tactfully deal with competition (smile at them but make up stories about how they sourced their goods) and knowing when to say no to a low offer....mostly if the customer rubbed my mother the wrong way. She turned down a lot of low offers.
Mom would eventually bring a thermos of soup and coffee and a box of saltines so Dad wouldn't lose his shit. And although the vendors were all protected and protective and no tight bonds were formed, my parents clearly enjoyed this new lot. They resisted spending their earnings on treasure-junk at adjoining tables and they faithfully stashed money away into a white envelope in a manila envelope in a shoebox in moms sock and hose drawer.
Dad would stop in every few weeks to pick up merchandise from Jerry and to pay him for goods sold. After a few times Jerry said to hold on to it. That dad didn't owe him for that last batch. He continued to give my parents sweaters to sell but soon stopped accepting payment. My parents were otherwise unemployed and it was this money that enabled them to eat out a couple of times a week, grab a movie now and then and even to throw me a few bucks when I needed it.
Donna and I had a long and ugly break up and Jerry remained in my family's lives for a while. After a winter break from the flea markets my parents were too sick to continue.
Jerry offered to finance a business for/with me and together we almost bought a famous gourmet cheese shop on Long islands wealthy North Shore. I worked there for a while to learn the business. Jerry got wind of my growing drug habit and pulled out, simply saying that it wasn't going to work out and telling me to come to him if I needed help with anything. "Anything", he repeated, hand on my shoulder and eyes bulging six inches away from mine. It would have been a disaster, as I'd inherited my parents fiscal irresponsibility and still had plenty of hell to raise before getting clean.
I remember Jerry as more of a cowboy than a merchant. His office was a corner of the shop, always littered with random items that had fallen off a truck: radar detectors,VCR players, Members Only jackets, diamonds....
My dad told me that Jerry had long been sleeping with Donnas sister and this thought bothered me more than I could understand. I was so disappointed in both of them.
I recently gave away the last of the sweaters I'd gotten from Jerry thirty years ago. Black cable-knit and stretched and holy.
When I lay in bed at night I've got this habit of imagining that I'm black on a bed of straw in 1850 Mississippi or Jewish on a plank in 1939 Lichtenburg, or alone on a cot, infected, 1986 Christopher Street. And I feel undeserving of my health, my warm bed and my freedom. I relate to their impending doom and their hearts desires and I get sad and sometimes I cry and somehow this is how I find my way to compassion and sometimes to gratitude. Or maybe to punish my self with guilt. And always as I lay under the dentists light getting prodded and drilled I think about Jerry, feeling everything and imagine that I'm that lonely, seedy, generous, wonderful and tough motherfucker. And I tighten up and grin right through his pain.