The Surrey was packed with people eager to escape the stifling August heat, and luxuriate in air-conditioned comfort for 39 cents. The crowd dressed just south of modesty, reeked of sweat that impregnated the worn cloth seats. That smell, and not the sand, surf, sun and bikinis of Sandra Dee-Troy Donahue California beach movies, was what Jake associated with summer.
He had just been promoted to evening relief manager for the J&J theater chain after a year ‘s stint as an usher. It was his first time sitting in the manager’s office, dressed in his high school graduation blue serge suit, master for the night of this dark, and blessedly cool, magical domain. The job wasn’t much, but in the two years since they had immigrated to America, his father had been unable to get a steady job and Jake’s paycheck helped his family survive. Besides, it was just temporary, his first stop on his journey to a brighter future. He had passed the entrance exam for City College, and next month would take his first step into a brave new world of ideas and learning, where he would emerge from his shabby immigrant cocoon, and become an intellectually scintillating scholar, a college professor, or best of all a writer.
Loud pounding on the office door brought him out of his reverie. He opened the door to one of his ushers, a painfully thin sixteen years old with moonscape cheeks, and a proud Hebraic proboscis. Marvin was out of breath from running up the stairs.
“You must come down, we have a problem at the door” he gasped.
“What problem?” Jake tried to sound concise and managerial.
”It’s Mrs. Feigenbaum, she wants to bring in her little grandson, but doesn’t want to pay for a second ticket.”
“She can’t do that.”
“That’s what Mr. Schwartz told her, but she won’t listen. She’s screaming her head off. She wants to talk to the manager.” Marvin giggled at the thought of Jake going head to head with the formidable Mrs. Feigenbaum.
A problem his first night, Jake never thought about having to handle large angry women when he gratefully accepted the promotion, and the extra quarter an hour that came with it. Walking down the stairs he tried to control his panic, reminding himself that through the ages other underdogs had prevailed over formidable foes. David had slain Goliath, Ulysses blinded the Cyclops, and with any kind of luck he would succeed in making Mrs. Feigenbaum listen to reason. The only problem with these confidence builders was he knew full well that any self respecting neighborhood bookie, even if he was familiar with those two worthies’ exploits, would make Mrs. Feigenbaum at least an eleven to five favorite over both of them; which made the odds against Jake astronomical.
His panic grew as he approached the door. Mrs. Feigenbaum, a five-foot cube of sweaty fat that overflowed every opening in her sleeveless housedress, a frightened little boy clutching her hem, was glowering threateningly at the clearly overwhelmed doorman. Her round face expanded by three angrily quivering chins, one adorned by a dark mole sprouting a tuft of black hair, matched the color of her Clairol-generated red hair. Her voice, coarsened by years of smoking Camels, competed successfully with the actors on the screen.
“What is the problem Mrs. Feigenbaum?” He smiled disingenuously hoping his voice wouldn’t break.
“I wanna talk to somebody responsible! Where’s the manager? I asked to talk to the manager not someone who’s still wetting his bed!”
“I am the relief manager. Mr. Somlyo is off tonight. What can I do for you Mrs. Feigenbaum?”
“What can you do for me? You wanna know what you can do for me mister relief manager? You can tell this monster to let my Lenny into the theater. Look at him, the poor baby hasn’t slept in days; he needs to cool off! “
The monster, Mr. Schwartz, a scrawny sexagenarian, was trying to become invisible; relieved that Jake was here to bear the brunt of La Feigenbaum’s ire.
“He’s not a monster Mrs. Feigenbaum, he is just doing his job. We’re just following the chain’s orders. Any child over two years old must have a ticket, so if you want to take your grandson in you have to buy him a ticket”. Jake tried to sound self-assured while quaking internally.
“Just following orders! You little Nazi bastard! Just following orders! You ever hear about Nuremboig mister big shot relief manager? You know what they did to those Nazi bastards for just following orders? They hung them! That’s what they did! So don’t you talk to me about just following orders you miserable little bedbug!”
This lecture on moral responsibility was delivered at uncomfortably close quarters.
Mrs. Feigenbaum had pinned Jake against the wall, pressing her body against his, while jabbing her finger in his face. Jake was afraid she would put out his eye; her finger seemed as out of control as its mistress. He tried not to look down at the enormous breasts pressing against his chest. They were bulging out of her skimpy housecoat, kept inside only by the forces of gravity, and the grace of God. He could refuse to look at them, but couldn’t avoid the acrid smell of angry sweat emanating from her cleavage, and armpits. He wasn’t sure whether he was going to start crying or just throw up. What he really wanted to do was run away, and let someone else earn the extra 25 cents an hour.
“Mrs. Feigenbaum...” he sputtered, his voice balanced shakily on the thin edge between panic and determination. “Mrs. Feigenbaum, how can you possibly call me a Nazi? My family survived the Holocaust, while you were safe in New York. This is wrong. You can’t call me names, just because you want to save 39 cents. If you want to bring your grandson in you will have to buy a ticket.”
“It’s not the 39 cents, it’s the principle you little schmuck! My Lenny is going to sit on my lap, so why should I pay for an extra seat? I’m going in and don’t nobody get in my way! Look at my poor baby, he is passing out from the heat. If he gets sick, you’ll wish you hadn’t survived the Holocaust mister big shot relief manager!” With those parting words Mrs. Feigenbaum released the pressure on Jake’s body and strode majestically towards the theater door.
Jake felt proud for verbally standing up to the old dragon, but didn’t know what to do with this latest challenge to his shaky authority. He knew he didn’t have the manpower to physically stop Mrs. Feigenbaum, but he couldn’t allow a precedent that would have every crone in the neighborhood claim the right to bring in children for free. Before you knew it, they would be stretching that privilege to relatives collecting Social Security. He could call the police, and become a hero in the eyes of the chain’s management, but a pariah in the neighborhood. He was balancing these unworkable options, when he noticed that Mrs. Feigenbaum’s progress had stopped at the doorway. For a moment he wondered if God, who had absentmindedly ignored the plight of his chosen people for a couple of millennia, had finally decided do something useful, and come to his aid. It turned out not to be God but an equally powerful force, Rosie Pasternak.
Rosie a fiftyish spinster, was a policewoman by day, but a nightly fixture at the Surrey. She was unaccountably but passionately smitten with Mr. Schwartz. In spite of his embarrassed protestations, to anyone who would listen, that he was too old, and his heart too weak to be anyone’s boyfriend. She waited for him every night, and walked him home after the beginning of the last show. They made an odd couple, but the sight of them always touched Jake’s inexperienced, but hopeful romantic heart. Rosie was six foot tall with broad shoulders and heavy hips encased in dark blue jackets and color matching knee length skirts. A six o’clock shadow peeked out from under the heavy pancake makeup that covered her prominent jaw and bony cheeks. Only the pink angora sweaters in the winter, and frilly pastel blouses in the summer hinted at the dainty feminine soul that inhabited her massive exterior. She towered over poor Abe Schwartz, all five foot three and one hundred and twenty pounds of him, as he trotted obediently alongside her, looking far less unhappy than he claimed to be.
Rosie had listened patiently to the sturm and drang of Mrs. Feigenbaum’s performance, unwilling to get involved. However, when it looked as if the object of her affection might be bowled over and possibly, God forbid, hurt by Mrs. Feigenbaum’s blitzkrieg, she moved with unexpected speed for such a large woman, and positioned herself in the doorway gently moving her beloved to the side.
Jake was relieved, grateful, but mainly awestruck by the confrontation. This was potentially better than any of the epic battles on the screen. You had evenly matched opponents, and no one could predict the outcome of such a titanic struggle. For one of the few times in her life Mrs. Feigenbaum hesitated. She wasn’t used to being challenged, but she wasn’t stupid, and recognized Rosie as a worthy adversary. The two women stood motionless, eying each other silently until Lenny broke the ominous silence. Tired and cranky he began to cry and pull at his grandmother’s housecoat.
“See what they are doing to my poor baby?” Mrs. Feigenbaum cried out, albeit in
a far less aggressive tone than she had used with Jake. “They have to let him in before he gets sick.”
“They are more than willing to let him in, they just want you to buy a ticket.” Rosie murmured, her voice occupying the opposite end of the sound spectrum.
“Why should I buy a ticket? He isn’t going to occupy a seat. I am going to hold him on my lap, so he can fall asleep.”
Rosie stood still for what seemed an eternity, and then came up with a Solomonic solution. She turned to Jake, “ I am sure that Mrs Feigenbaum didn’t know about the theater’s policy, and so this one time as a gesture of goodwill why don’t you let her bring her grandson in, but in the future...” she looked pointedly at Mrs. Feigenbaum, “… I am sure that she will buy a ticket for the boy.”
Jake, relieved by a resolution that allowed him to survive with a modicum of dignity, agreed enthusiastically. He knew that Mrs. Feigenbaum would violate this truce the very next hot night, but he didn’t care. He only worked at the Surrey on Tuesdays, the other six nights he relieved managers at other theaters in the J&J chain, and so the odds were seven to one he wouldn’t have to deal with her again; he could live with that. Mrs. Feigenbaum went along far less enthusiastically, she hated the idea of even an appearance of compromise. However, short term, the agreement gave her what she wanted. Her face still inflamed she reluctantly shook her head in grudging agreement, and proceeded inside. She squeezed herself into her seat, full-throatedly sharing with the rest of the audience her personal opinion of the theater owners’ lack of consideration for their clients. The bastards were so cheap they bought tiny seats that only fit consumptives, and were torture for normal size people.
The rest of the evening passed uneventfully, except for Mrs Feigenbaum giving Jake the evil eye on the way out. He chose to ignore it. He was a rational twentieth century American who wasn’t afraid of old country superstitions, and didn’t believe in curses. Besides, at his mother’s insistence, he always carried a piece of red cloth in his pocket, which everyone knew protected you against the evil eye.
When the theatre emptied at midnight, he locked the doors, and walked the three blocks home. Even after taking off the jacket and bow tie, Jake was covered with sweat by the time he reached his house.
Even though it was well past midnight, everyone in the neighborhood, unable to sleep in their cramped, overheated apartments, was gathered in small groups on the sidewalk, hoping vainly for the slightest breeze that might move the oppressive blanket of hot air that filled the space between the rows of six story brick tenements. Jake looked over the crowd spread on the sidewalks on both sides of the street. His Mother standing in front their building was holding court among the younger married women. In spite of the heat his mother wore a dress, high heel shoes and makeup, eschewing the cooler and more comfortable housecoats and slippers favored by her companions. They might be only one step away from eviction, but the neighbors would only see a worldly and elegant Grand Dame. One would never know from the animation of her gestures, and the smile on her face that she was hanging on through sheer determination to her few remaining strands of hope for a once dreamed of bright future. He walked over and kissed her on the cheek.
“Finished work Yankele?” She used the affectionate diminutive of his Yiddish name. Beaming, she turned him around to face the ladies, exhibit A of her crowning accomplishment.
“You know my son Jake, my college boy. He’s going to City College next month, and he’s going to become a doctor.”
The ladies smiled at him approvingly. Those with daughters of the right age speculating whether they should draft him as a future son in law, before some stranger, a college girl from Brooklyn or Queens snapped him up. Jake blushed, and mumbled that he hadn’t definitely decided yet what he was going to study. “I might study writing,” he added.
“He might study writing? Maybe being a doctor isn’t good enough for him? After all he is already a big shot. Isn’t that so mister big shot relief manager?” At the sound of the familiar and oh so unwelcome raspy voice, Jake’s whole body coiled up inwardly, like a drop of oil cast into water, trying to present as little surface as possible to the enemy.
“I am not going to college to become a big shot Mrs. Feigenbaum. I am going there to become educated.”
“I’m going to college to become educated.” She mocked him, giving her imitation of a society matron. “ You greenhorns make me laugh with your fancy airs. You want to be educated? I am going to educate you for nothing mister big shot relief manager. This is America, the only thing that counts here is how much money you make; fancy clothes and fancy airs don’t mean shit!”
Jake knew this was payback for their contretemps at he movies, she wasn’t just attacking him, she was going after his Mom. He didn’t need to look, he could feel the heat of his mother’s face ablaze with embarrassment, and for the first time this evening he felt equal to the task of handling the Gorgon. His body uncoiled back to its full height, and his stomach stopped cramping as he turned fiercely towards Mrs. Feigenbaum. She could beat him up, but nobody was going to put down his mother. She had suffered enough these last two years. All the lifelong lessons about respecting your elders, and being polite suddenly didn’t apply; this was war, and he was going to crush the bitch.
“This is just the Bronx, not America, Mrs. Feigenbaum. We greenhorns know that, because we have seen more of the world than only the few blocks you know. I am grateful that my parents taught me to value learning, and that is what I am going to do in college. I am going to get an education, and eventually a profession that will allow us to get out of here and leave you to make life miserable for new victims.”
He put his arm protectively around his mother’s shoulders, and led her proudly into their small, cramped apartment in silence. His mother kissed him and held him tightly for a few moments. “You’ll make a great doctor,” she whispered in his ear, and then went to the bedroom where his father was already asleep, probably girding his loins for next day’s quest for employment.
Jake went to the living room and lay down on the convertible couch that served as his bed. He tossed and turned, unable to fall asleep. He may have stood up to Mrs. Feigenbaum, but he wasn’t even sure he actually believed what he told her. Was money really all that mattered? He might be young and idealistic but he wasn’t stupid. He knew that even mediocre professionals: accountants, dentists, lawyers, not just doctors made a good living, which was true for only a very few successful writers. He closed his eyes, determined to go to sleep. Maybe tomorrow the heat wave would break, and blessed coolness would put his world right again. Maybe tomorrow he would figure out the real reason he wanted to attend college in the first place.
Michael Fryd was a scientist for fifty years. At seventy-five, he decided the time was right to jettison the passive voice, a non-negotiable requisite for publication in serious scientific journals, and return to his youthful passion, writing fiction. His memoir “My War and You’re Welcome to it” which, describes his family’s struggle to survive the Holocaust was a semifinalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition for creative non-fiction. He has written a number of short stories, and is halfway through a novel “The Golden Country”.