“I have to dump you at the store,” was how my mother referred to dropping me off at my grandmother’s store. Perhaps this was my mother’s way of teaching me irony or a way to verbalize her guilt in having a passion for her career. The irony was that I loved being dumped.
The “store,” Haselkorn’s Five and Dime, on the corner of 29th and First Avenue was my grandfather and grandmother’s business. My grandfather Jacob opened the store in 1914 and all four of their children worked in the “store” before they had a chance to escape to various professions. Mollie, my grandmother, never had a chance to spoil her own children. She came to the United States when she was thirteen. At fourteen she worked in my grandfather’s store. When she was 17 she was pregnant with my mother, the first of four children. She quickly married. Their marriage seemed to work. They barely held on to the store during the depression but the bank repossessed their home in the Bronx. When Mollie was 47, Jacob died and she had to manage the store on her own.
Mollie was mostly self-educated. Sam, the assistant manager wrote all the signs in the store because she couldn’t spell. Customers with a large number of items for purchase were treated to Mollie’s math. She wrote down the cost of each item on the brown paper used to wrap the purchase, took a look at all the numbers and came up with a result without carrying over to each column or doing anything that resembled calculation. Yet if anyone disputed her addition and took the time to carefully add up all the figures their result might be no more than a few cents off from Mollie’s.
Haselkorn’s was a neighborhood store. Customers were working class immigrants. Mollie knew her customers by their life stories and easily saw their common experiences rather than their differences. Most everyone demonstrated affection for her and she shared this affection with me. By the time I was four every customer and shop owner on the block knew me as “Mollie’s grandson,” a neighborhood title of esteem. “Dumped” at the store was theatre. At an early age I thought the retailing business was no more then exchanging stories. Every customer had a story. They told these stories to my grandmother with humor, sadness, drama, and insight. These stories were saved and when my grandmother had time she would explain the reasons why Sophie’s husband was yelling at her children, or why Mary had to work two jobs for her kid to go to college, or why Mario couldn’t help being late with his rent.
Sam, the assistant manager of the store was stern and never laughed or played. In contrast, Ann the main sales person was dependably cheerful. My grandmother took time to explain that some people can’t carry things from their past as well as others. As much as I wanted to hate Sam my grandmother would point out Sam’s strengths and his suffering from his own sternness. She offered the idea that Ann, who had equally significant challenges in her life, was better off because of her gift for humor.
Occasionally life with my grandmother would extend beyond the neighborhood. It couldn’t get better then a buying trip to downtown Manhattan. Instead of wearing her simple multi colored aprons she would put on heels, a hat, and a dress that appeared more fashionable. Along with her change in clothes was a keener sense of authority only detected outside the neighborhood. The warehouses and manufacturing facilities were mostly on lower Broadway. We would spend at least an hour at each location as my grandmother negotiated for merchandise for the store. Mollie and the owners would share stories, look me up and down and say something admiring, and I would drift into the warehouse or if lucky into the manufacturing rooms. I knew it was near time to leave when their voices became raised and agitated.
“Look Mollie, if I give it to you at that price my children will have no clothes.”
My grandmother would restate the terms of what she wanted, collect me, and say something about how she hoped a wife or relative of the owner soon recovered, got into a school, got out of the army, or some such thing. These were particular comments rather than generic and were usually responded to with familial affection.
I was upset the first few times I heard such banter. I knew my grandmother to be generous, allowing customers to take merchandize when they could not pay, giving bonuses to her employees, and taking on major and minor family crises. Thus I was confused about how she could leave some man’s children without clothes.
She explained the subtext of adult talk. What adults said was not always what they meant. The owners and salespeople were not use to bargaining with women. They liked her but they assumed they could get better prices from her because she was a woman and only represented a small store. Thus she had to work especially hard at demanding a good price. Once they learned she could bargain effectively they enjoyed teasing her and that’s why they said she was taking the last cent away from their family. It seemed odd, but I was reassured.
Question@You: One of the many tasks for children is figuring out the adult world they will eventually enter. Often a grandparent, such as Mollie serves as a principle role model. Why does that happen? Is it happenstance and proximity or is there something related to the skipped generation? Please leave a comment.