By Richard Klin
After the end of the Second World War—after the German occupation, the round-ups, the hiding—the tailor’s son and daughter boarded a ship and left Brussels forever, bound for New York City and a father they barely remembered.
The tailor’s son and daughter hadn’t laid eyes on their father since his own departure from Brussels in the late 1930s. Vast prosperity, the tailor had promised, awaited in this mythical place called New York City, and in due time his wife, son, and daughter would follow. But the war, of course, had intervened.
The tailor had seemed shockingly unfamiliar when the son and daughter were reunited with their father. For one, his French had mostly evaporated. The tailor’s practical temperament precluded any sort of sentimental baggage: language was for strictly utilitarian purposes, a means to an end. Long ago he had left Poland to set up shop as a tailor in Brussels and proceeded to master French only because his economic survival depended on it. Here in Brooklyn, of course, there was no need for French and it was mostly discarded, the remnants trotted out to serve as, in essence, a party trick, something to wow a customer or impress Ida on her all-too-frequent visits.
The tailor’s English was completely fluent, peppered with unfamiliar colloquialisms and references to baseball, cherry lime rickeys, that monumental poker game on Pitkin Avenue. This epic card game had transpired soon after the tailor’s own arrival in the United States. It seemed to serve as the cornerstone of his very existence. The assumption had been that this newly arrived tailor was a greenhorn, a patsy who didn’t know the first thing whatsoever about poker. But the tailor—with skill, cunning, and a dexterity that had never failed him—had bested the other players, forcing their respect and forever smashing any assumptions that he was some sort of rube. The tailor related this saga at regular intervals, calling up the details in painful, unwavering exactitude. The tailor’s son could repeat, verbatim, entire swaths of the story.
Perhaps the single most arresting thing to the tailor’s son was that his father had somehow acquired his very own American moniker: Red, in honor of his mane of red hair. It was like something straight out of those American cowboy movies that he and the entire neighborhood had followed so avidly. The idea that this was the name of his very own father was so absurdly striking that he too had started to refer to his father as Red, which had, over time, become a habit.
The tailor’s son, in that first, disorienting period of his new life in Brooklyn, had instinctively searched far and wide for French, any snatches or hints of the familiar cadence, cocking his head to the radio in the faint hopes of a familiar song, going so far as to strike up conversations with the reticent Mr. Gindi, the French-speaking Sephardic baker on Avenue M, who seemed less than interested.
And Yiddish, of which the tailor’s son did have a working knowledge, also proved to be basically a dead end. Red’s Yiddish—like all of Brooklyn, it seemed—had shifted into a strange, thoroughly unfamiliar American patois.
And in that initial, disorienting stage, the tailor’s son–so thoroughly shaped by his wartime experience as a trusted altar boy–also instinctively kept his eyes peeled for an appropriate Catholic church.
His mother had made those complicated arrangements for him and his sister to be placed in hiding. The blond, blue-eyed tailor’s son—simply by dint of his physical appearance—had become the unofficial leader of the little gaggle of Jewish children passing themselves off as Catholic, hiding in plain sight from the omniscient gaze of the Germans and their Belgian supporters. It was the tailor’s son who was responsible for going into the village to fetch the ration of milk for the others. In the closing days of the war, this necessitated making his way past an encampment of German soldiers. Some, he could see, were not significantly older than he was.
The tailor’s son had gained the trust of the strict and exacting priest, serving with distinction as an altar boy in the little church in Ottignies, taking his vocation with the utmost seriousness, imbibing the mystery and grandeur of the Sunday Mass. Panem coelestem accipiam et nomen Domini invocabo. The priest was totally and completely bald, a short, energetic man who brooked no nonsense whatsoever. Despite his tiny stature, he was easily able to engender the children’s respect and obedience. Per Omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.
But the tailor, of course, had not undergone a complete and total transformation. His shop on Kings Highway—just as the one on Rue du Lavoir—contained the familiar jumble of pants, suit jackets, swaths of fabric. The tailor worked with a variety of deadly-looking scissors, just as he had in Brussels. The whir and clatter of the sewing machine sounded the same as it had before the war.
On Rue du Lavoir the tailor’s shop and its goings-on were basically grown-ups’ business. The mother—she herself the daughter of a long line of Czestochowa tailors—always seemed to be hovering in the background, conferring with the tailor on business matters in hurried Yiddish. She had never been able to acclimate to life in Belgium; had not, in fact, even mastered French.
In Brooklyn the tailor’s son and daughter were older and now could observe Red in his place of work and his regular clientele: a familiar retinue of shopkeepers, neighbors, some landsmen from Czestochowa, and Mr. Rabbinowitz, a stooped widower who insisted that he had served in the German army with a young Adolf Hitler. Possibly the nicest of the bunch, paradoxically, was Mr. Kirchsner, the neighborhood bookie, an older, courteous man who was very exacting about his sartorial style, even though his preference was for fabric so cheap that Red had a difficult time matching it, joking in private that Mr. Kirchsner’s material could only be procured in the Bowery. Mr. Kirchsner took an almost avuncular interest in the scholastic progress of the tailor’s son and daughter, inquiring as to their grades, their study habits.
The radio was always on in the background in the shop on Kings Highway, like a constant guest sitting in the corner, engaging in a running monologue on the weather, baseball, the news. Red, who had no use for nostalgia of any sort, would from time to time–almost in spite of himself–turn the radio to WEVD, the Yiddish station, and then it seemed that the constant guest in the corner had transformed into a slightly dotty, Yiddish-speaking relative: chatting, declaiming, singing.
There was always an element of high drama when Ida visited the shop. She seemed perpetually horrified by the clutter and chaos, oblivious to the fact that this obviously was what a functioning tailor’s shop looked like. Her visits, luckily, never lasted long. The tailor’s son surmised that Ida was secretly afraid of Major, the large, lumbering dog of indeterminate lineage who lived at the shop and served as Red’s constant companion. The dog, who had long preceded the son and daughter’s arrival to New York, was ostensibly around in the event of some sort of emergency, although it was hard to imagine this well-meaning slob fending off any sort of danger. On Rue du Lavoir, owning a dog would have been inconceivable; his parents, the tailor’s son remembered, abhorred them. Major, though, was a calming—albeit smelly—presence with a passion for pickles and the odd charlotte russe, those little sponge cakes with whipped cream that could be procured from Mr. Gindi’s bakery. The tailor’s son and daughter took great pains to ensure that Major received his allotted share of pickles, stopping off at the Kishke King on Avenue J. They were usually served by Mr. Skovronek, a man so tiny that he was rendered invisible by the tall counters and who got a real kick out of Major’s zest for pickles. A few times a week Major would rouse himself from his pickle-besotted laziness and slowly amble up and down Kings Highway, poking about in garbage and occasionally exploring a particularly intriguing cellar or storage area.
Ida had immense reservoirs of respect for Red’s cleverness, skill, his ability to toss off a French phrase. But at the same time she was a loud, hectoring presence, badgering him to take more time off, to take her to the movies, to buy a Frigidaire, to spend some time with her sister Esther and Esther’s husband, Al. And, of course, to take them all to dinner at Glantz’s in Sheepshead Bay. Ida, in her own words, was absolutely nutty for Glantz’s. And how could anyone not be nutty for Glantz’s? Dinner at Glantz’s involved not just hot rolls and butter, a salad, a baked potato, but a substantial entrée that could range from brisket to chicken to fish to turkey. Red, however, remained unmoved. She then attempted to woo his children, going so far as to warble the Glantz’s jingle in a rendition that sounded every bit as grating as her harsh speaking voice: Take a glance/a glance at Glantz’s/the food you love/why take chances? The tailor’s son had honestly assumed that Ida was joking and had laughed appreciatively, but her rendition of the Glantz’s jingle had been entirely serious. She turned beet-red and, after an uncomfortable silence, left the apartment a few minutes later.
In general, Red was mostly deaf to Ida’s constant entreaties, but his resolve gradually crumbled in the face of her unrelenting campaign. And then at some point the tailor, with great ceremony, made the grand announcement: They were—yes–all to dine at Glantz’s.
In the week that followed, as Ida bustled about, even the tailor’s son had to admit to sharing some of her infectious excitement. She even shanghaied the tailor’s daughter for a shopping excursion to Flatbush Avenue. Red assembled a suit for his son, taking great care to match slacks and jacket with the proper tie. And the tailor’s own sartorial needs, of course, occupied endless amounts of Ida’s time and energy, going so far as to enlist her sister Esther’s counsel.
Glantz’s was indeed every bit as impressive as Ida claimed: an enormous dining area of ivory-white tablecloths and gleaming silverware as far as the eye could see. An army of solemn, alert waiters swooped down and with lighting speed placed shiny metal tureens filled with celery onto their table, bowls of mixed nuts and olives, fruit cups, radishes, and baskets of sweet dinner rolls that were so warm from the oven the butter melted instantaneously. With great ceremony, the tailor’s daughter was presented with her very own special drink, a bubbling, pink-hued Shirley Temple, complete with blue swizzle stick and an unbearably sweet red cherry. Ida, seemingly in her element, ordered—after much deliberation—a pineapple fizz; Red, suspicious of unfamiliar drinks, requested schnapps. And the dinner turned out to be the cornucopia that Ida had described, looking on with an almost proprietary happiness as the main course was served: Glantz’s brisket—the best in the city, Ida claimed authoritatively—accompanied by massive, steaming baked potatoes, bursting at the seams with sour cream and sprinkled with chives, piles of buttery lima beans, glazed orange carrots. Even Red, a mostly indifferent eater, was impressed, and just when it seemed that every culinary expectation on earth had been fulfilled and the evening was, just a bit, starting to drag on, four huge slabs of gloppy baked Alaska were set before them. Ida was so taken with this that for a horrible, fleeting moment, the tailor’s son was seized with the fear that she would burst into song, right here in the middle of Glantz’s.
The night, ultimately, was long and exhausting, but Ida’s energy was unflagging, waxing rhapsodically about the high-class service, the pineapple fizz; the baked Alaska; expressing mild disapproval that Red insisted—even here at Glantz’s– on finishing the evening with his customary glass of tea with lemon.
The next morning Major was dead. He had died sometime during the night and even though Red instinctively kept the shop open for business, it was a halfhearted gesture. The tailor seemed absolutely shocked. Major had been such an integral part of his business, his day-to-day life. Word quickly spread. A steady stream of visitors, galvanized by the news, shuttled in and out of the shop. A consensus quickly developed: Major had no doubt imbibed some rat poison on his last foray up and down Kings Highway. It was a wonder, really, that it hadn’t happened sooner.
The tailor’s son, to his surprise, was stricken by the sudden death of this innocuous creature. Something should be done, he thought, and cast about for a plan of action, although he hadn’t a clue as to what exactly that plan of action would entail. He thought, fleetingly, of that little shul off Coney Island Avenue, then quickly realized the absurdity of strolling into a synagogue where he’d never before set foot and announcing—to somebody–that Major the dog had eaten rat poison and died.
His thoughts drifted to the little church in Ottignies. The priest, stern to the point of intimidation, nevertheless had inexhaustible reservoirs of patience for even the most mundane aspects of Church doctrine. No theological question posed by the Jewish children was too trivial for him to entertain. The tailor’s son, now, pondered if dogs had an immortal soul; if this had ever been discussed.
Misereatur tui omnipotens Deus, et dimissis peccatis tuis, perducat te ad vitam aeternam. Amen.
The Belgian collaborators, he remembered, were ingenious and organized. They even had a name: the Rexists. Late one night they sent an emissary to the priest with an urgent message: An old man was near death. Last rites needed to be administered immediately. It was a ruse, of course. And so he went, the priest from the little church in Ottignies, straight into the Rexists’ trap. Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam meam in vitam aeternam. Amen.
Later that day, the tailor’s son, alone in the apartment, pondered the death of Major. Quietly, instinctively, he made the sign of the cross, precisely as he’d been instructed.
About the Author
Richard Klin is a writer based in New York’s Hudson Valley and the author of Abstract Expressionism for Beginners(For Beginners Books) and Something to Say: Thoughts on Art and Politics in America (Leapfrog Press). His writing has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and has appeared in the Atlantic, the Brooklyn Rail, the Forward, Akashic Books’ “Thursdaze” series, Flyover Country Review, and others.