To Each, Accordingly
I loved going to my grandparent’s bakery. On Sunday mornings there was a line of people wrapped around the corner waiting for bagels, but grandchildren were too important to wait. We went right in.
A fine layer of dust and flour had settled on the big store windows, preventing the sun from lighting the store too harshly . A circular dark-red vinyl seat to the right of the door had once held a fern atop its tall conical back. Six customers could have sat on the bench, between the dividing lines of brass studs, but none ever did. The fern had died of neglect and disappeared long ago.
There was no ‘take a number’ system; customers stood in queues more or less patiently. If somebody stepped out of place and attempted to get back in, a dispute could arise. Depending on the ethnic makeup of the line, the dispute could get ugly.
Zaydeh rarely came into the store, and if he did, he seemed strangely shy and deferential. It was Bubbeh who ruled behind the counter, the financial brains of the business, handling customers and tradesmen, superior to Zaydeh in her ability to speak English and her basic arithmetic skills. She was the one who had furnished the store, bought the big glass fronted cases and the up-to-date equipment.
To me, the most fascinating thing in the store was the bread slicer, a new white-enameled machine with serrated stainless teeth. It sat slightly above my eye level. I came running when a customer asked for sliced rye. Bubbeh was proud that the bakery was modern and successful enough to afford the machine, but sliced bread goes stale quickly. When a woman asked for a sliced rye, my grandmother would provide it pleasantly enough, though she always gritted her teeth at the wastefulness. If the customer was too dainty, too finely dressed, Bubbeh would wait until she’d left, then mutter sarcastically to no one in particular, “Such a fancy-schmancy! A regular balabusta.” Being called a balabusta was usually a compliment. It meant a boss-lady, a superior housewife. But her comments in this case were obviously sarcastic, since no good housewife would buy bread sliced.
When turned on, the slicer shook the whole counter and made an impressive racket. A waiting bag could then be easily slid over the sliced loaf. The whole process drew me like a magnet. What power! But grandchildren were strictly forbidden from touching the slicer, whether the switch was on or off. Even Bubbeh would slap hands for that transgression. Michael told me that it could remove a child’s arm, gnawing down to a bloody stump. It was dangerous with a capital ‘D’.
Danish, cookies, and occasionally cakes would be placed in white cardboard boxes and tied with string from a giant roll. The tied boxes always looked so intriguing, like presents. Even if you knew what was in them, they enhanced your sense of anticipation. The cake inside would grow more luscious in your mind’s eye. It wasn’t just me who felt this way. I could see how other children would stand indifferently in line as their parents picked out some pastry. The kids might even get a cookie to eat right on the spot. But once the Sunday dessert was in the box, they’d beg to hold it, to feel its hidden weight. It was a sad day when those boxes were equipped with cellophane windows.
The boxes came in huge flat stacks, each stiff cardboard sheet only a potential box, destined for a future sale. When things got busy, it slowed down Bubbeh and the other salesgirl to fold the sides of the boxes up and hook the side tabs into the slots. Sometimes they would make boxes in advance during lulls in the hectic action. I often watched as their hanging upper arms danced over the counter in their frenzy to get a little bit ahead.
One Sunday morning, during an uncommon slump, Bubbeh noticed me sitting on the round bench, bouncing my heels repetitively against the vinyl-covered wooden stand that supported the seat. The noise had to be annoying, but I was oblivious. Nobody was around to play with; my parents and brother were off somewhere unknown. I was bored, but I was enchanted with boredom. Boredom was not allowed in our house, not when there were chores to do or books to read. It was a rare treat to be bored, made me feel rich. Had I looked I would have seen that her quizzical expression accentuated the twist in the side of her mouth, residual from a small stroke of years past.
Idleness in me, the competent grandchild, was like a thorn in her side. If I had an open book, I would have received only fond glances or would have heard something like, “She’s been reading since she’s t’ree. Vat can you do? Ven dey’re a’ zoy bright you can’t slow dem down.” Heavily accented, bragging words of praise directed at any adult within hearing distance.
Now she called me over in a sugarcoated voice, “Kim aheir, mummele.” In her upstairs apartment that term of endearment would probably mean that a slice of hot rye bread had been rescued from the oven and raced upstairs just for my delectation. Upstairs was a perfect world, where the front door opened right into the dining room, the center of Bubbeh’s universe. I adored hugging her there, sinking slightly into her soft, short body, but down here I knew she was all Business. She didn’t want to offer me a treat. She didn’t need to since all the grandchildren could take anything they wanted at any time unless it would interfere with Business. The calculated manner she was using now made me suspicious.
“Why do you want me to come over there, Bubbeh?” I asked. “What do you want?” If I were close to her, she’d have me in her power. The affection I didn’t get at home would overwhelm me, and I’d do whatever she asked. I wasn’t sure what it was that she wanted, but knew instinctively that too much closeness weakened my position. Wanting to bargain from strength, I approached cautiously, ready to negotiate a deal.
“Listen, I must have boxes put togedder for de next crowd of customers. Dey’ll be in soon.” Bubbeh explained. She gazed lovingly, as if that would get me to do whatever she wanted.
I didn’t reply verbally, just cocked my head and dropped my lower lip petulantly.
A subtle smile crossed her face. “I’ll give you a penny for five.”
My first offer of employment! I was proud that she treated me like an equal, but unlike my mother Mamie, one who was liked. But she seemed too eager for my agreement in front of her workers. An intuitive understanding grew in me. I didn’t need to accept the first offer. There was no way I could lose. Odds were, the terms could be bettered.
“But Bubbeh, it’s getting nice outside and you said sunshine was good for children.” I was hedging by acting cute. Her back straightened with pride. Already I was showing some capability as a business person.
“Four for a penny,” she countered.
We bargained back and forth for several minutes, her voice dropping down like honey, mine rising like the chirping of an indignant sparrow.
The salesgirl laughed, pointing at me to several of the bakers, who peeked out of the back room. They jostled for position in the doorway, cigarettes dangling from their lips. “Look, she’s standing just like Mrs. Beck.” I was unconsciously imitating my grandmother, hands akimbo across my non-existent bosom.
The bakers watched with wistful smiles. Like Zaydeh, they rarely came into the front, but they were lonely men, who loved kids. Working long hours in the middle of the night, wearing sleeveless undershirts in the hellish heat of the bakery, they hoped to accumulate enough money to ransom their wives and children from the old country. Those who still had families, that is. Several had lost everyone, gone, disappeared in the war. But they all admired Zaydeh, for as hard as they worked, he outdid them.
At last I had the deal I thought was worth giving up valuable goofing off time. It was actually a fantastic deal. “How about a penny a box?” I asked.
Mamie was nowhere around, or she would have been outraged, and forced me into slave labor. My grandparents were capitalists, and believed in hard work and the American dream. That meant they argued frequently with my parents, who were Communists, Mamie more doctrinaire than Myer. She didn’t believe in paying children to do chores, and this definitely was classifiable as a chore. ‘From each according to their abilities’ was her motto, though, to our knowledge, she never applied it to herself.
A towering stack of flat box forms was delivered by one of the women to the space between the seat and the window. Just in time, for a steady flow of bread and bagel seekers arrived fresh from church, goyem who knew what good was, or they’d have been up the street buying fake rye bread and quick cakes at the, a quick lady-like spit, “p-tew,” to avoid the evil eye, German bakery. Bubbeh might spit when talking about them in her apartment, but never in the store.
I found these customers intriguing, almost exotic. This group was subdued and well dressed, unlike the earlier, more familiar crowd of Jews who had Sunday morning off. The ladies wore hats with veils and belted coats trimmed with fur. A few even had those appalling fox pieces with tails and beady-eyes.
I didn’t have time to gawk at those limp heads with their yellowing teeth; no time to shake the little paws or yank on the white tipped tails. I had work to do. Crouching down in my overalls, I began folding and tucking with a vengeance.
It was a record busy day. The wall clock with the black hands and numbers ticked steadily on. I could hear Bubbeh mutter Yiddish curses under her breath when a tall elegant blonde asked if the bread was fresh. Of course it was fresh! The cream filled cakes that Jews didn’t buy might be a little off, but then, goyem didn’t know the difference. If they did, they never complained, and they came back for more. The breads and bagels were bought by customers who knew what good was. There was no way the freshness of the bread could be questioned. Zaydeh would never, ever sell old bread.
As the afternoon wore on, no one remembered me, no one called me for lunch or sat down to eat it themselves. It was too busy. I was impervious to hunger, compulsive in my work even then. I kept my head down, my nose to the grindstone. It was almost evening when my parents showed up, looking to take me home.
Bubbeh glanced up, her pleasant, profitable day disoriented by the sound of her least favorite child’s voice. The store was now closed and she was wiping down the inside of the cases. Cleanliness in the retail area was of paramount importance to her. The glass displaying the Danish, the huge cookies, and the yeasty coffeecake had to shine! The floor had to be scrubbed! Everything had to be as immaculate as her apartment.
Her daughter’s voice reminded Bubbeh of the house she had turned over to us. Mamie was never a good housekeeper. Dishes might sit from one meal to the next. What would people think if, God forbid, Mamie suddenly got sick? They might come in and think she herself had been raised in a messy house. Bubbeh had never been able to make her daughter toe the line.
My grandmother had totally forgotten me and the task she had set me on. Perhaps, sensing my boredom, she had even suggested box making as a way to keep me out of her hair. Certainly nobody had been sent to get the formed boxes from me, despite the volume of baked goods sold.
I didn’t even hear my mother talking. Lost in reverie, I was still feverishly at work. Fold, bend, tuck! Fold, bend, tuck! Fold, bend, tuck! I missed my grandmother’s eyes sweeping to the front of the store, taking in the piled boxes lying on the floor and the seat of the bench. Each formed box had been placed neatly in the gray interior of the next one, with the top sticking straight up like the back of a chair.
Bubbeh came out from behind the counter, wiping her hands on the day’s soiled apron. My parents approached, too. They had seen me work obsessively on other tasks, but nothing like this. What would have been appreciated in an adult was unnatural in someone so young.
“Rachel!” My mother said my name sharply.
I jumped, my neck smarting from the position in which it had been held. The last box tumbled to the floor.
“Get your things, we’re going home,” Mamie said in a voice that brooked no disobedience.
“But…” I stuttered. I wanted the money.
“Now!” she barked.
I felt a flush of defiance. I didn’t care what she said. I’d worked for hours and wasn’t prepared to leave without my pay. I narrowed my eyes, forcing tears. The best plan lay in appealing to Bubbeh. I ran at her and grabbed her arm, sobbing piteously. She fell for my act, as she always did.
“Ve have to count de boxes,” she said. “Ruchele gets a penny a box. I made a deal.” Both my grandparents were fair employers, union men.
“It’s late,” Mamie hissed. “We have a long ride home.”
I could feel the anger that passed between the two women, it didn’t feel at all unnatural or worrisome. I knew I had the stronger ally, though it was a perilous alliance. My grandmother rarely came to our house. Her jurisdiction ended at the corner of 79th Street. We came to her.
The standoff lasted two or three long minutes. And then, abruptly, it was over. Bubbeh stood more than eight inches shorter but had the advantage. Looking down at the plump little body standing resolutely below her, Mamie’s face changed, softened, became wistful. Her spine relaxed. I would get my money. I thought I had won.
“We have to count de boxes,” my grandmother insisted. “I hired her, I made a deal. A deal’s a deal.”
My mother’s nostrils, already wide, flared further, but she sat on the bench and began to count. Bubbeh took the piles on the other side. My father, as usual, had disappeared from notice. He may just have faded into the background, or he may have gone into the bakery itself to see if any of the workers were still around. While striving to get intellectual status with a legitimate college degree, he loved the proletariat.
Five hundred boxes, that’s how many I’d made. Five hundred boxes hidden in the dead space between the bench and the huge store windows. Even Bubbeh was shocked: five hundred boxes at a penny a box was five dollars. The daily salary of some adult workers, a fortune for a five year old. I had been forgotten for too long, had been too industrious. I should have grown tired of the task, should have come out from the corner for food, for a treat. They were disturbed by my single-mindedness.
Again I felt the tingling alertness of danger, real danger that the sum was just too great to be handed over. I held my breath, anticipating betrayal, trying to figure out another reasonable argument.
I needn’t have worried. Bubbeh may have thought it was a lot, but she looked at the smug half-smile on her daughter’s face, strolled to the register, hit the ‘no-sale’ key and pulled out five dollar bills. She handed them to me with a flourish. The game was older than I was.
We hadn’t even driven three blocks before my mother turned and held her hand out. “Give it to me,” she said, her voice harsh.
“No!” I was indignant, believing that the issue had been settled at the bakery. It was unfair that I was so much smaller. To reinforce my position, I scuttled to the corner behind Myer. He didn’t say a word, but stuck his arm out the window to signal a turn.
Mamie’s hand swung towards the corner, palm open to receive the bills. I briefly considered opening the door and leaping out. I was too young to imagine serious injury, or death. The scrapes would hurt, but at least I’d have the money. It would take all my strength to force the little curved handle down and push the door open, though. And anyway, she’d make him stop the car and nab me.
I looked up at the plush ceiling, at the space above the back seat, and down to the floor. There really was no place to go. I was like a rat in a trap. Desperate. Keeping the money was of paramount importance. “Myer!” I cried, scrabbling my heels rhythmically against the fabric of the seat, as if my mother’s hand were really down that low, and could be pushed away.
Myer reached one hand into his collar and pulled to give him more room. The shirt was loose around his neck, anyway, since he wasn’t wearing a tie. Like the other fathers in our neighborhood, he wasn’t a muscular man. He was a pencil pusher, a draftsman, a mechanical engineer. Though he was a tall man, the biceps in his arms were stringy; his legs embarrassingly lank and white when he wore his trunks at the shore. If they had ever engaged in physical fighting, the money’d be on Mamie. She was huge for a woman in those days, five-nine and a half or five-ten, and solidly built. Myer wasn’t really weak, but he’d married a woman with a lot of heft to her.
“Myer!” I repeated. It was a long shot, but there was no other option.
“Why don’t you let her keep it?” he asked mildly, his hand back on the gear-shift, his eyes directed ahead through the split windshield.
“Because it’s too much for a child her age, that’s why.” Her voice had a bitter edge to it.
“But she earned it.” He was going unusually far. Fortunately there was no classical music, none of Tellemann’s intricate tinklings or Vivaldi’s boomings to distract him. A tiny flame of hope flared. I prayed to him to really intercede.
Mamie wasn’t impressed. “Well, blame that on my mother, “ she replied tersely. “She’s always spoiling her. All she’ll care about is money.” Words chosen to be inflammatory.
“Still, they made a deal.” Myer didn’t rise to the bait. His voice was as mild and detached as usual. Exasperation was the highest state of emotion we usually heard from him, that or a light joviality. If a real fight started with Mamie, he’d usually let loose a weak expletive, like ‘God-dammit!’ and walk away. As I said, they were never physically combative, but if they were, even I’d have bet on her.
“To each according to her need,” was her only reply. As if that said everything. She held her hand out again.
Myer’s eyes appeared in the small rear-view mirror. They glistened with betrayal. “Give Mamie the money. She’ll hold it for you.”
Hold it for me? Who did he think he was kidding? Only a fool would believe that. Betrayed, I kicked the back of the seat behind him, sliding down to reach. Real tears started stinging the corners of my eyes, but they were not only impotent, they were dangerous. If I really started bawling, Mamie’d give me Something To Cry About. I fondled the crisp ones as long as I could, then placed them in my mother’s palm.