by Robert Wexelblatt
Yesterday, I looked through an old photo album, the sort of thing you do once a decade or so. The album is covered in cracked brown leather; the black-and-white snapshots have those little triangles at each corner to hold them in place. On the second page is a photograph I recalled my father once made a point of showing me, with commentary. The picture is of my great-grandfather, Elias Fein, standing in front of his place of business. He has on a black suit with a high white collar; his arms crossed. He isn’t smiling proudly but stands there grim and pugnacious, the immigrant who has staked his claim and isn’t just prepared but eager to defend it.
“That’s exactly how I remember him,” my father had said.
Elias emigrated from Colmar in Alsace; it isn’t hard to figure out why. Colmar is usually in France but has sometimes been in Germany; it depends on who won the last war. In 1349, the Christians of Colmar massacred the Jews of Colmar. Napoleon Bonaparte was a liberator of Jews—he’s a hero to many still —but he didn’t love them. He turned on the Jews of Colmar by freeing the Gentiles who owed them money of their debts. In 1848, there were anti-Semitic riots in Colmar as in so many other civilized spots in Europe. Alfred Dreyfus came from Alsace too, from Mulhouse, right down the road from Colmar. He was accused of being born with double disloyalty: a German sympathizer by location, by heritage an alien Jew.
I visited Colmar once, just to see the place. The town looks echt Deutsch, a sort of Grimms theme park, with tall, half-timbered buildings with high pitched roofs leaning over cobbled squares. St. Martin’s Gothic church dominates Colmar’s modest skyline and looks German too, big and stolid, without French grace. It was begun in the 13th century on the remains of an older church. Perhaps the Carolingian chapel looked more French. Even the wines of the region are German—Riesling and Gewürtztraminer. Alsace was hospitable to both French and German anti-Semitism—a tradition that, like haute cuisine, Oktoberfest, and Brooks Brothers never goes out of style. Easy to understand why Elias would have yearned to find a new world. For his longing, we all-American Feins must be grateful.
Great-grandfather Elias was not a money-lender but a tailor. He settled in the Tioga section of Philadelphia and started up a business in cheap women’s dresses. He did all right, I suppose; but when the business was taken over by his elder son Reuben, a real go-getter, it took off. Reuben had vision. He opened new markets and hired a lot of competent and diligent women who, according to family lore, he encouraged to join the Ladies Garments Workers Union. His younger brother, my grandfather Emmanuel (the name of a messiah), could have joined the business but had no interest in it. Instead, he convinced his father to send him to Penn Law. He became famous/notorious as a crusading liberal who took on “causes”. He even ran for mayor once. Instead of being proud of this, my father dismissed it as a ploy by the bosses to flatter his vanity and divide the Jewish vote. His only son, my father Henry, was as disgusted by the prospect of becoming a lawyer as his father was by the dress factory; he particularly didn’t want any part of crusading, nor would he consent to be a doctor, or even a dentist. Perhaps owing to some atavistic impulse, or well-aimed Oedipal thrust, what my father chose to do was business, to make lots of money and to do it without pretentions.
Father valued personal virtues but didn’t believe in collective ones. Politics he considered a heap of empty clichés, phony promises, and grubby motives. His father’s fame as a do-gooder might have intimidated but it didn’t impress him. “The difference between God and a social worker is that God doesn’t pretend to be a social worker,” he once cracked. Yet he denied being cynical. On the contrary, he claimed it was the politicians who were the cynics, lying and bamboozling and trying to stay in office long enough to be called statesmen and hailed for their public service. “I’m the idealist,” he declared, “the practical kind.” So, Father joined his Uncle Reuben at Female Thrift Fashions, Inc. and, after a few years, was running the place. Like Reuben, he had vision, a vision so large it required a bigger city. “Philadelphia,” he said, “is one big inferiority complex.” When I was twelve, he moved FTF and us to New York, where he made it big. “That’s why you’ve got the means to be a decadent intellectual,” as he reminded me recently.
Before I was whisked off to Brooklyn, there were several occasions when I was left to spend an unkept Sabbath at my grandfather’s office. I loved being there. The place had a legal smell of old wood, musty rows of law books, a motherly secretary/receptionist, and a man who wasn’t any kind of father but a friend. Grandfather kept interesting objects on his desk, including a shockingly big copper shell-casing he said was from the Civil War. My visits always started off well enough, with him asking about my week, about what I was learning in school; but in no time he was delivering lectures on plutocracy, racism, the countless venal and mortal sins of bankers, corporations, the nation’s hypocritical foreign policy, and the awful things going on in City Hall, right under the nose of William Penn.
Even as a child, it was clear to me that Grandfather felt betrayed by my father, who had chosen his brother over him. I expect he had looked forward to his son becoming his partner, fighting injustice at his side rather than, as he once angrily put it, “hawking shoddy schmattes.” I suppose in his eyes it was a step backward, from the professions to trade. To fill the void left by his son, my grandfather took on an associate, Bernard J. Black. Bernie was somebody’s nephew, so giving him a place was an act of kindness. Bernie was certainly grateful—more than grateful—but he was not a surrogate son. He became something else. Bernie Black was Grandfather’s sidekick—also my friend.
My memories of Bernie are all fond ones. He was much warmer toward me than Grandfather, and he was fun. He didn’t spout sermons or declaim screeds; he asked me questions I couldn’t answer but liked being asked: Was I happy? What were my two favorite books? Did I think my school was really trying to integrate the wave of new students who’d fled the South? He was always asking me silly riddles. “What gets wetter the more it dries?” (A towel.) “What’s the difference between a piano, glue, and a tuna?” (You can tuna piano but you can’t piano a tuna!) “That’s good,” I said, “but what about the glue?” “Sorry, Sid. I’m stuck on that!”
During my visits Grandfather usually handed me over to Bernie and the we went to lunch at the Horn and Hardart automat. At one of these lunches, Bernie asked whether I had a girlfriend and, thinking of Caitlin O’Brien, I blushed. “So, it’s a secret, eh? Good, secrets are okay. But look, maybe I’ll tell you a secret.” He glanced around the crowded restaurant and whispered, “But later, not here.” When we got back, he ushered me into his little office, shut his door, sat me down, and with great solemnity, said what he was about to tell me was his “most secret secret.” It turned out to be that his family’s real name was Blechschmidt.
“Ugh! Blechschmidt means tinker—you know, tin-smith. But blech can also mean nonsense. Just imagine having to go through life as Bernie Blechschmidt. Bernard Jesse Blechschmidt, forger of tinny rubbish. Phooey! I had a narrow escape.”
Bernie was good company, one of those adults who have the knack of treating children as equals; but what I had a hard time figuring out was his attitude toward Grandfather. At times, it seemed simply unalloyed adoration but, at others, a sort of wry, though unshakably faithful, skepticism. He was proud of my grandfather and his crusading, but not so much that he couldn’t make a joke now and then about them both—or appreciate one made by somebody else. When I told him what my father had said about God and the social worker, Bernie cracked up.
Like many pale, ectomorphic urban boys of my generation, I loved the old B-Westerns, Heaven knows how many of these Hollywood cranked out during the Depression and the war—so many that they were bound to be formulaic, like concerti grossi.
All the usual things captivated me: the empty plains and mesas that signified limitless space and fetterless freedom not to be found even in Prospect Park. Then there were the horses, the romantic adventures, the shoot-outs and showdowns where the bullets never exploded flesh or struck the hero. I also liked small, odd details, things you couldn’t really talk about: for instance, that the cowboys never had to go to the bathroom, wash, change their clothes, brush their teeth, or shave; that they were never short of cash, lived on a diet of beef and beans and seemed to have no parents, as if born in their prime. The heroes were not only relative-free but always on the move. While I was anchored to my home, they were homeless, which I took as liberation. The exception was Roy Rogers who owned a beautiful spread and had a cowgirl wife, Dale Evans—the first married woman I encountered who didn’t take her husband’s name. What you wanted from Roy and Dale was for them to adopt you. I liked the heroes’ intimacy with their horses, who had names of their own, dignified ones like Champion, Silver, Trigger, Black Jack.
Almost all of these cowboy heroes had sidekicks; but I hadn’t thought much about them until the day it struck me that a sidekick is what Bernie Black was—Emmanuel’s Andy Devine and Smiley Burnette, my grandfather’s Gabby Hayes, his own Slim Pickens. This meant that my grandfather must be in the mold of Whip Wilson, Hopalong Cassidy, Rocky Lane, Tim Holt, Bob Steele, the Durango Kid, Sunset Carson, Rex Allen, and the Cisco Kid. It seemed improbable to me; however, like them, he fought injustice, albeit unmounted and in the Wild East. But just like them, he had a sidekick.
I have tracked down two etymologies for the word sidekick. One traces it back to 1896 and the slang of pickpockets. The “kick” was the front side pocket of a pair of trousers, the hardest to pick, the safest. So, says the lexicographer, a “side-kick” was a person’s closest companion. This seems fanciful. The alternative derivation is simpler, older, and feels right. This source says the term was first used in 1886 and meant “side-pal” or “side-partner”—a wingman, so to speak. The source is obviously American. There was still plenty of Wild West around in 1886.
Sidekicks resemble each other. They are a type. However, some famous sidekicks, especially from more civilized Europe, are different from those in the Westerns. Dr. Watson is certainly a sidekick, but who can imagine Gabby Hayes writing up Hopalong’s adventures or Pancho with a medical degree upbraiding Cisco for downing too much tequila out of sheer ennui? Sure, there’s Doc Holliday, but he was more gambler and gunfighter than dentist, only a temporary sidekick for Wyatt Earp, and also an actual person, while real sidekicks—by which I mean the fictional ones—stick around. If the hero loses his sidekick, he quickly gets another one. When Chester left Gunsmoke, Festus, an even more sidekicky sidekick, turned up the next week.
Cowboy movies generally don’t explain how or why the hero acquired his sidekick, why the sidekick sticks by the hero, or which has greater need of the other. The need, like the relationship, is simply a donnée, part of the formula. Yet the implication is that, in addition to providing an occasion for a bit of dialogue between action sequences, their needs of hero and sidekick are mutual. I suppose I felt this vaguely as a child; now I think that the sidekick grounds the hero who, for his part, needs not only an anchor, but a subordinate too, someone whose anti-heroism will be a foil for his valor. The sidekick initiates nothing; he is literally along for the ride. He may, like Bernie, be skeptical of his pal’s knight-errantry and not so happy with the danger it puts him in; but sidekicking is better than homesteading, even better than running a dry goods store. So, he attaches himself, makes a profession of it—just as the old character-actors made their careers by hitching their chuck wagons to a star.
Are these relationships homoerotic? Only the most willful of psychoanalytic theoreticians would push the point. Still, the bond of hero and sidekick does mirror many childhood and adolescent bonds, not only for boys but for girls as well, children in the stage of “best friends,” when boys useless at sports fasten themselves to stronger, more athletic ones and unprepossessing girls shadow popular ones. And yet nobody’s going to want to be Nugget Clark Waller; everybody wants to be Rocky Lane or Tim Holt. The hero always has fancier outfits, better mounts, shinier six-guns. Westerns are puerile fantasies, wishes fulfilled in ninety-minute vacations from the ordinary. Wyoming was, for me, an alternate universe. But then there was also the suspicion, quickly repressed, that, if I could actually move into that world, I wouldn’t be a hero at all, that the best I could hope for was to be a sidekick. Maybe this is what Bernie Black felt about his fate. Being my grandfather’s dogsbody in pursuit of mostly lost causes, standing by his side (actually, a little behind) for the Right and Good—this was much better than writing wills or doing title searches. Sidekicks want adventures, but they know their limits. That’s what makes them sidekicks rather than heroes.
Sidekicks are like the B-sides of hit 45 records. They are played by actors whose faces you recognize but whose names seldom make it off the tip of your tongue. They have a kind of individuality that’s a little deeper and more human than the heroes, who tend to be defined by signature gimmicks—Hoot Gibson’s ten-gallon hat, Lash Larue’s bullwhip. Sidekicks aren’t so brave or fast on the draw as the heroes, not as eloquent, smart, charismatic, or flashily clad—yet they are reliable, faithful, and they have two feet on the ground, unlike their Luftmenschen companions. If you think about sidekicks at all, you might wonder what they were like ten years earlier; you might wonder what kind of jokes they made about the hero behind his back.
The relations between the Western hero and sidekick are not those of master and slave. Rather, the affiliation seems to me more like the one between knight and squire, or one particular knight and one special squire. I am thinking of Cervantes’ sublime satire, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha. For me, the ur-sidekick is Sancho Panza.
Like Sancho, a good sidekick is completely sane, even if he’d prefer not to be; and, like Quixote, the hero is slightly mad, driven by his cause and addicted to conflict. Heroes never claim to be heroes for the same reason that people suffering from delusions don’t claim to be deluded.
The relationship between Bernie Black and my grandfather must have been to some degree like that between the Don and his squire. Emmanuel was famous for his speeches in court, just as Quixote mimicked the bombast of his beloved romances. Bernie was different; he was plain-spoken, unoriginal, but always made sense. Sancho has a bottomless bag of proverbs, the common wisdom of the common man. Rain in May makes bread for the whole year. Dainty dogs may eat dirty puddings. He whose father is a judge goes safe to trial. Some of Sancho’s proverbs strike me as especially suited to sidekicks, such as It is other people’s burdens that kill the ass or The bay horse thinks one thing, the man who saddles him another. A sidekick resembles that ass, is like that bay horse. He too is subject to the commands, whims, thoughts, and burdens of another. Sancho must know that Quixote is crazy but he follows him all the same. Like all good sidekicks, he is in love with a madness he doesn’t share, and partially deplores, yet constantly abets. It’s so much more fun to be Quixote’s squire than to be Sancho the family man, the stay-at-home, that he eagerly lays aside his own sanity until it is needed. So, it makes perfect sense that, when Quixote recovers his mind, it should be Sancho who pleads with him to sally forth once more, to return to madness.
The most profound and also the most playful commentary on the sidekick’s relationship to the hero is Franz Kafka’s astonishing tale in The Great Wall of China, “The Truth about Sancho Panza”. This two-sentence masterpiece was first published in 1931, well after Kafka’s death, and by his own sidekick, Max Brod, who gave the parable its title:
Without making any boast of it Sancho Panza succeeded in the
course of years, by devouring a great number of romances of chivalry
and adventure in the evening and night hours, in so diverting from
him his demon, whom he later called Don Quixote, that his demon
thereupon set out in perfect freedom on the maddest exploits, which,
however, for the lack of a preordained object, which should have been
Sancho Panza himself, harmed nobody. A free man, Sancho Panza
philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out
of a sense of responsibility, and had of them a great and edifying
entertainment to the end of his days.
Well, what else but romantic demons were Crash Corrigan and Whip Wilson? And what else but puerile editions of Sancho Panza were the sidekicks who accompanied them on their adventures? Was it like this for Bernie Black? Was my grandfather in some sense his diverted demon, the source of endless edifying entertainment, a master to be served because Emmanuel, messianic tilter at windmills, was, in some sense, his responsibility?
I can imagine a reversal of Kafka’s story. Here it is the sidekick who is the demon, a dull, normal, limited, second-rate demon conjured up by a hero who is anxious that—without such a one to remind him of what it truly is—he would lose the world even as he went about setting it to rights.
I found this text in Fein’s folder for 1973. There is a holograph, with revisions, stapled to a typescript. As Max Brod gave Kafka’s story its title, I have done the same with this essay.
Fein’s grandfather Emmanuel died in September 1963. According to his daughter, Fein believed the Sixties began on November 22 of that year, the day John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley died. He regretted his grandfather missed a decade he would have relished, one in which many of his lost causes were won, or at least reconsidered: red-lining, police brutality, manifestly unfair sentencing, zoning corruption, industrial pollution, deceptive advertising, violations of labor law. Had he lived, Emmanuel Fein’s career of defending the indigent and going after the affluent would have been celebrated. Even as it was, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that his funeral attracted a couple thousand people. The eulogy was delivered by the head of the NAACP.
“On Sidekicks” is a sort of essay, but it is also a memoir, a “Feinian” one in its unexpected turns, digressions, with an appearance by Kafka at the end. What is not typical of Fein are its revelations about family history and the author’s childhood, his love of the old B-Westerns, even the name of a girl on whom he had a prepubescent crush. Fein was rarely so open about himself in his writings, which tend more toward abstraction than confession.
It is never easy to say just what Fein’s intentions were with his unpublished papers, or even why he chose to leave them unpublished. “On Sidekicks” may have been abandoned or put aside with the intention of returning to revise and reorganize it—but, just as likely, it is merely a set of free associations and variations on a theme, observations without any special focus or adequate unity.
Nevertheless, that Fein both revised and typed it up what he wrote suggests a serious purpose.
As an adult, Fein liked movies, his taste maturing as he did. His daughter recalls his telling her that the first time he realized film could be an art-form rather than what Scott Fitzgerald called “wet goods for children” (see “On Mystery”), was when he saw The Seventh Seal. Bergman’s masterpiece was released in the U. S. in October, 1958, when Fein was sixteen. His comments here on the Westerns of his childhood indicate that he saw a lot of them but looked back on them as childish and formulaic, debased, melodramatic versions of Don Quixote; yet, as a boy, he loved them and, at thirty-one, thinking of his forebears, and especially of his grandfather’s associate Bernard Black, wrote of them with insight, nostalgia, and affection.
While Fein has a good deal to say about the men in his family, there is not a word here about the women, no mention of a grandmother, mother, or aunt. I think the explanation is not that Fein was indifferent to women or unfamiliar with matriarchs—he had plenty to say of the former in Want, Desire, and Need and of the latter in Aristocratic Democracy. I believe he was concentrating here on the exclusively masculine worlds of the old Westerns and his grandfather’s law office, the friction between fathers and sons, but, above all, on the bond of hero and sidekick, and perhaps his own capacity, or inability, to be either one or the other.
About the Author:
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published five fiction collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, Heiberg’s Twitch, and Petites Suites; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, awardedthe Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction. A collection of essays, The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein, is forthcoming.