After I made a sandwich at my desk, Richie Boy grabbed a slice of salami. Our sharing more than food throughout our twenty-year friendship didn’t deter my protests against his poaching. “I see you have no shame in being a schnorrer!”
“Only cause I learn from the best.” Richie Boy popped the peppery slice in his mouth and returned to fielding the onslaught of phone calls from friends and customers.
“What’s a ‘snorer’?” said Anna, the tall student who had been hired for the Christmas rush. She was beautiful and sweet, but her Brazilian accent couldn’t get around the guttural ‘schn’., so I explained, “A schnorrer is someone who mooches off you.”
“Mooch?” This term stumped Anna’s English.
A passing Hassidic pearl dealer interjected his two cents, “A mooch or schnorrer is a beggar.”
“Yes, but not always,” I explained. “A schnorrer is more someone who eats off your plate, because he likes what you have.”
“You mean like how someone else’s potato chips taste better than those you buy.”
Satisfied Anna understood my analogy, I turned to the Hassid. “Can you think of another word for beggar?”
“Not that I know.” The Hassid pulled on his long curly sidelock.
“Marty,” I yelled to the retired principal, who schlepped merchandise part-time for Manny’s partner. “What’s the Yiddish word for beggar?”
While Marty was a scholar of Judaica, he replied perplexed. “Have to admit I really don’t know.”
“So a ‘snorer’ is like those ladies with the canes begging on the sidewalk?”
“No, those ladies are Palestinian Gypsies,” Marty frowned disapprovingly.
“So there’s nothing wrong with them?” Anna’s eyes widened like she had witnessed a miracle.
“They have a school where they learn to walk like ballerinas with broken feet.”
“I thought they were cripple.”
“They’re thieves running a scam.”
“So beggars are more honest.” Anna was puzzled.
“Beggars are just as bad.”
“Not Lenny!” I protested.
Manny, my boss, lifted his head. “Lenny was the worst of them all. He pretended to be mad, but he had more money than all of us put together.”
Manny also accused me of having a hidden fortune and I said, “That’s not true. How much money did you think Lenny made in one day?”
“Fifty dollars easy,” Marty ventured and even Lee got into the discussion. “He didn’t need the money. His family was rich.”
“Lenny was too crazy to make any money.”
“Too drunk more like it!” Manny muttered, then added, “Don’t you have anything better to do than talk about that bum!”
“Yeah, the world’s a better place without him!” Lee returned to his end of the booth.
Lenny certainly wasn’t cantonizable to sainthood, so I dropped the subject and called several customers about picking up their merchandise. Once I was hung up, Anna sat down and asked, “Who was Lenny and why did everyone get so angry about him?”
“Lenny?” I looked over my shoulder and whispered, because I didn’t want to ignite another debate. “There’s a mad rabbi who always is shouting ‘Shalom!’ and another Hassid pretending to be asking for alms for the new temple in Jerusalem. Lenny was the only Hassidic bum on the street who wasn’t running a religious scam.”
“So this Lenny was a good person?” Anna whispered, as Manny went into the window for a diamond brooch.
“No, Lenny wasn’t such a nice person, but I like him.” Maybe because he resembled an overweight puppy gone.
“Anna, I want you to go up to the setter and have him check these stones.” Manny handed her a set of earrings. “Why are you bothering to tell stories about that gonif!”
“Because Lenny was special and certainly didn’t steal like Tie-coon.” Tie-coon was a well-dressed gentleman from Harlem providing ties and belt from famous stores at a fraction of the price.
“Tie-coon provided a service.” Manny gave him $20 any time the shoplifter asked. He had a weak spot for him and I had mine. “Lenny might have been worthless, but he wasn’t a thief and always had a nice word for me.”
“Cause you gave him a buck!”
“Yeah, well, it was my dollar.” Noticing Anna waiting with her coat over her arm, I motioned for her to leave. Once she was gone, Manny said, “And now you don’t have to give it to him, because Lenny’s gone.”
“Don’t tell me that makes you happy?” I actually missed seeing him on the street.
“No, just glad I don’t hear his whining voice anymore.”
Manny resumed juggling his bills and I went to the front window to rearrange the rings. In front of 34 West 47th Street an older man in a suit sat on the sidewalk with his trouser rolled up his wooden leg and by the garbage can a seventeen-year old Gypsy with a baby in her arms was begging to passers-by. Sometimes it seemed like there were more beggars on 47th Street than customers, but none of them were as good as Lenny.
He made me laugh many times and there aren’t many people who can do that.
The first day I started working at 45 West 47th Street was cold.
By the afternoon the snow was coming down hard and the operation across the aisle was packing up for an early departure home. Manny was desperately hoping for a final sale and said we were staying till closing time. The guards weren’t happy to hear this news, but no customers entered the exchange. Not one and at 5pm a bovine-faced fat man with broken glasses and a yarmulke drunkenly perched across a prematurely balding skull opened the door. He wasn’t wearing a coat, only a tee-shirt and paper-thin pants, though he showed no effects from the blizzard other than show on his shoulders. He blew on his hands and asked, “Anyone have anything to give today.”
Manny shouted, “Get out! This is a place of business.”
“What you have against Jews?” His voice was high-pitched and sounded easily excitable.
“We have nothing against Jews, only bums!” Lee angrily shouted, “You heard the man, get out of here!”
“You’re both Nazis!” He faced me. “What about you? You’re a gentile, right? You got a dollar. I don’t do drugs. All I do is get a little stitch. That’s yiddish for drunk.”
I dug into my pocket for a dollar. When he eagerly stepped closer, the smell of rancid potato wrinkled my nose. He took off his threadbare yarmulke. “Sorry, but I don’t wash in the shelter. It’s not kosher.”
I laughed, “You are a little ripe.”
“In the summer it’s worst, but it keeps away anyone who wants to hurt me and in the shelter there’s plenty of people that don’t like Jews.”
I handed him the dollar and the bum shrugged to Lee. “See how gentiles treat Jews.”
As soon as he left, Manny said, “I don’t want you giving that bum any money. Not in my place of business.”
“Okay,” I answered, but my money was my money.
The next day I was returning from Berger’s Deli with my lunch and spotted the bum was speaking with Manny’s first employee, Norman Greenhut. It was below freezing, yet his skin steamed from the fever of his mania.
I stopped and listened to his articulate treatise on Microsoft stock. He almost sounded intelligent, though I wasn’t banking anything on someone who smelled like a dead man’s shoe. As I began to walk away, the bum said, “There’s the goy who gave me a dollar yesterday. The good goy, Damien.”
“His name isn’t Damien___”Norman started, but I interrupted, “I like the name Damien fine.”
“My name’s Lenny.” The bum nervously shuffled from one foot to another.
“You want my lunch?” I couldn’t resist the charm of his utter helplessness.
“From Berger? That’s not kosher.”
“Just what the world has been waiting for, a finicky bum,” Norman laughed, but Lenny cringed with hurt and shambled off with a mutter. “I’m not finicky, just don’t eat tref. See you, Damien.”
Berger’s was definitely kosher, though not dairy, and I said, “Lenny doesn’t seem to be playing with all the cards in the deck.”
“Believe it or not, Lenny used to be a big stockbroker on Wall Street.”
“He went nuts after the 1987 Crash. Lost his fortune and his mind.” Norman never had a nice word to say about many people, but admitted, “He really does know what he’s talking about.”
“So you would use his stock tip.”
“About Microsoft? No way they’ll beat out IBM.”
Of course no one listened to Lenny, because he would start the day on 47th Street at noon as a meek moocher and work the street getting a dollar here and there. Richie Boy and I gave as did another twenty soft touches. He would always joke about Richie Boy having schitzah or gentile girlfriends and thank me for any contribution by saying, “You’re a good man, Damien. God bless you.”
We all made fun of him, but no one picked on the schemiell more than himself and he worked self-deprecation to a fine art. People would ask him to come home in hopes of salvation, but Lenny was beyond redemption and apparently happy where he was, though he did suffer.
Once I caught him limping up the sidewalk and asked him what was wrong.
“You know I sleep outside, because the crackheads in the shelter will steal everything I have.”
“Lenny, what could they want from you?” Lenny possessed nothing even a crackhead would want, but desperation is the evil step-father of need.
“They think I’m rich, just like everyone here. The Nazis!” He unbuckled his belt and dropped his pants. “I was sleeping on a bench and a cop hit me.”
The bruises across his thighs were not self-induced and I told him, “Pull up your pants, Lenny. There are women present.”
None of them were looking, but Lenny chuckled, “Sorry, I forgot where I was.”
I held out five dollars and Lenny said, “You don’t have to, Damien. I know you don’t make a lot of money.”
“Yeah, I know everything about the street.” He smiled wisely and his eyes were clear. “Maybe one day I’ll tell you everything I know like how three years ago there was a drought in Angola. You know where it is, right above South Africa.”
The country had been suffering from a savage civil war since the Portuguese abandoned their old colony in 1975. I nodded and Lenny continued, “Well, there was a UN truce and things were getting back to normal, but because the water was so low, people were able to go into the rivers and pick millions of diamonds from the riverbeds. Billions and diamonds were getting about as rare as lightbulbs, so deBeers got tired of paying out this money and paid Savimbi from Unita to start up the war again. Don’t worry, you won’t find it in the papers. Thanks for the money, Damien.”
And he was right, I never was able to verify this tale, except there is still a war in Angola.
Being right didn’t help Lenny, but he always retained his humor. His best schtick, occurred in 1996, when he ran for president. “Vote for me for President. A Jew for America. I have a plan for peace in the Middle East. We normalize relations with Cuba, bet them to declare Havana to be Miami. All the Cubans will move to Cuba thinking it’s Miami, then we get all the Israelis to move to Florida, where Disneyworld will build them a new Jerusalem to await the messiah.”
Of course no one voted for Lenny, but they would give him enough to buy a pint bottle of whiskey. Despite his size it didn’t take much to get him drunk and by 5pm he was a disgrace. His glasses at an angle, he would insult the pedestrians, ignorant of anyone’s generosity, and the police hustled him off the block for good.
The winter of 2000 I left to live in Thailand, thinking I could retire from the diamond trade.
Life was good out there and I returned to New York for the holidays. The city was prosperous and filled with shoppers. I hadn’t been looking for Lenny, but found him on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. His schtick didn’t work on the bussed-in tourists and he appeared sad, almost sick. I went up to him and said, “Lenny, are you okay?”
He squinted behind his smeared glasses and whined, “Oh, it’s you Damien! You still working on the street?”
“No, I’m living in Bangkok. Working for an Internet company.” At least hat was my cover.
“Oh, Bangkok, you have to be careful there. They’ll steal all your money, you don’t look out.” It was a prediction to which I should have listened. I reached into my pocket and held out a dollar bill. “Damien, you don’t have to.”
“Hey, it’s the holidays.”
“For the goyim, but not a poor Jew like me.”
“Poor, everyone on the street thinks you’re rich.”
“A lot they know.” He emptied his pockets. They held nothing, but lint. “I haven’t made any money, since they threw me off the street. All because I started saying that Israel should give back some land to the Arabs.”
I had heard it was for exposing himself in an exchange, but he had done that plenty of times without getting in trouble. “What about your family?’
“I have no family. My mother and father, you think they want anything to do with me. And my brother and sister. Them too, but what can you expect? I’m a bum. You want to know where I live. I’ll tell you. You know I can’t sleep in the shelter, because it’s not kosher, so I sleep on the grate near the Fifth Avenue Synagogue. I think the rabbi doesn’t like me doing that, but you know why I do this. Because I make the gentiles think there’s such a thing as a poor Jew.”
“But everyone on 47th Street thinks you’re rich.”
“That’s what they want to think, because they don’t want to know anyone poor. That’s why I haunted 47th Street. Just to show them how close being poor was. That was my mission, but they took that away from me.”
“Lenny, that’s not true.”
“Damien, that nice of you to think that, but I know better. You look at all those diamonds. All so beautiful and do they make the people who sell them happy. Not that I can see, but then I’m nearly blind.”
He took my dollar and lurched off the steps like a giant Panda trying to find a new zoo.
When Anna returned to the store, she asked, “What happened to Lenny?”
“He died of an infected hernia.”
“That’s so sad.”
“Yeah, and he was a good dancer.” It was a lie, but I wanted Anna to think good of him.
I miss him. Miss him beaming an idiotic grin at the window. Miss him pissing off Lee. Miss his stupid shamble up the sidewalk, because on a street where wealth is exulted, Lenny believed in just being a human being. That might be wrong, but like him I don’t really believe in the value of diamonds, only their beauty. Just like people.
The day after Christmas Manny’s longtime partner, Lee, was showing a 7.04 Cushion Cut Round Diamond to a retired couple from West Palm Beach. The sixtyish woman wore a matriarchal Dior outfit, though she betrayed her Brooklyn roots with an envious coo, “I don’t know, it’s so bigggg!”
Her husband wore a fur coat and his skin was the color of an old leather couch from the decades of sun on Long Island and Florida. For once he agreed with his wife and said, “It is big.”
“Big? This isn’t big.” Lee, silver-haired and handsome in his early seventies, slipped the platinum ring onto the woman’s finger. “You remember Liz Taylor and Richard Burton? Well, back when we were all young, my good friend, Buzzy Yugler, had a 55-Carat D Flawless Diamond, which sparkled like snow under moonlight. Liz thought it was a little too big, yet once she put it on, she somehow changed her mind and said, “I think I can get used to it.”
Acting as if he had been in the room with Liz, Lee guffawed elegantly and the couple laughed too, though the man sighed, when Lee asked me, “Could you put this back in the front window.”
As the woman’s eyes trailed the ring longingly, I heard Manny mutter about Lee’s unabashed schmoozing, “Buzzy Yugler had nothing to do with that sale.”
Whereas Lee had been brought up on Park Avenue and inherited his father’s diamond business on 47th Street, Manny had spent his youth on the streets of Brownsville and learned the jewelry trade on the Bowery from the bottom up. The Italian suits and imported ties accented more his rough background than hide them, not that he cared a rat’s ass what anyone thought, because he didn’t have to pretend that he had a firm grasp of what was right and wrong.
“What do you mean?” I asked, bringing the 7.04 to the front window.
“I don’t have time to tell stories.” Manny looked at the wall clock at the back of the exchange. It was past noon and his customer hadn’t arrived with a promised check. He frowned like Jackie Mason not getting a laugh and turned to me. “And neither do you.”
I surveyed the sidewalk for prospective customers, however most were intent on wide-eyed browsing. “Not much business out there today.”
“Now you hexed the entire day.” Manny pulled out the folded paper towel he wore every morning to prevent his shirt collar from getting dirty. He knotted his tie and joined me in the window. He was ready for action, but one glance at the street broke his heart and he said, “Buzzy Yugler bid a million dollars for the stone, which wasn’t 55-carat.”
I remembered Liz Taylor leaving the singer, Eddie Fisher, for Richard Burton during the filming of CLEOPATRA. “A million dollars back in 1964 must have been a lot of money.”
“But not enough to buy a 66-carat Pear Shape, because someone beat Buzzy’s bid by three hundred thou, though failure didn’t prevent him from crowing about having sold Liz the stone.”
“I thought Harry Winston sold Richard Burton the stone.”
“Maybe he did.” Manny shrugged like he heard different. “Abe Padrush offered Elizabeth Taylor two-million three for the stone. She would have sold it to him, except he wanted her to hand it to him personally and be photographed doing so. Publicity like that would have been priceless, but Richard Burton refused. Thought it was too low-class. Goyim, go figure.”
Richard Burton’s rejecting the prime Yiddish tenet of ‘nimmt geld’ or take the money confounded Manny, as did many aspect of gentile behavior. His son, Richie Boy, had been speaking on the telephone, but overheard his father and decided to his father a zug or needle. “You just don’t understand them, because you were brought up on the Bowery.”
“We had plenty of Gs downtown.”
“Yeah, but not like here and you don’t know how to deal with these people uptown.”
Being Yankee Irish I had a lot of better things to do than intermediate the eternal psychological battle between father and son, but Richie Boy turned to me and said, “You remember than million dollar ruby?”
“How can I forget?” I could easily recollect the fingernail-sized stone ten years earlier. I only had only seen it twice and each time was awed by the blood red radiance, yet I hadn’t seen any one million dollars in it and when I had told Richie Boy the same, he had said, “I don’t either, but believe me that’s what it’s worth.”
“Your guy isn’t going to buy it!” Manny insisted, as we examined the stone.
“Why do you always have to be so negative?” Richie Boy shook his head. He wasn’t handsome, but possessed an demonstrative affability, which had won over a good number of wealthy clients, though none as rich as the president of a West Coast airline who was looking to buy his girlfriend, a blonde heiress from Millbrook, something special for her birthday. His call was for a very rare ruby. It had to be over five carats, a natural from Burma, internal perfect, and the color of the blood bleeding from a pigeon’s nose. The vein, not the artery. Very specific about the details, which meant the customer had done his research.
Richie Boy phoned several dealers and within a day came up with a stone. It wasn’t cheap and the dealer flatly told us, “875,000 dollars and I don’t want to hear any bitching about the price.”
Banned from chiseling the price angered Manny, especially since his son was reaching for stars he couldn’t see. “I’m not being negative, but no one, and I don’t care how rich they are is going to spend a million dollars for someone else’s wife.”
“Yeah, but he’s going to marry her as soon as she’s free.” Richie protested, though Manny merely laughed, “Think what you like. You’re young. You’ll find out.”
His father walked away and Richie Boy asked me, “What do you think?”
“It doesn’t look like a house in the Hamptons with a beach view, but what do I know?”
Richie Boy agreed and picked two diamond necklaces for back-up from Lee’s inventory. Both cost over a quarter million. “The G has to buy something.”
An hour later the client called and told Richie Boy to meet him at the Regis Hotel.
In his room on the tenth floor.
Richie Boy’s father immediately announced that we were being set up. Neither of us disagreed, but the client wasn’t coming to 47th Street. Manny wanted to kabosh the entire deal, however we were insured for the full value of the merchandise.
“And what if you get robbed on the street?” His father liked to play all the angles.
“That’s not going to happen!” Richie was licensed to carry, though when he stuck his 9mm in the shoulder holster, I asked, “You’re not really going to shot someone, if they try and rob us?”
“No, nothing is worth dying over, but it will look better on the insurance form, if I was carrying.” To Richie Boy’s way of thinking getting robbed was almost like making a sale, since the insurance companies would have to cover the loss, though both of us could do without the psychological scarring of someone sticking a gun in our face..
As Richie Boy hid the jewelry inside his suit coat and I picked up the front section of the newspaper. His father swore, “What you need a newspaper for?”
I was about to tell him, I wanted something to read, however Richie Boy told him, “Pete broke Doom Darazzio’s nose with a newspaper. One blow.”
Manny’s brother. Seymour the Cop, could attest to my toughness, but that was a long time ago and I was only taking the newspaper was to have something to read, while Richie Boy conducted his sale. Everyone wished us luck, though his father swore we were crazy.
He was right, but we walked over to the St. Regis Hotel and arrived at the hotel without incident. Two guests tried to get on the elevator with us, but Richie Boy and I glared a warning to take the next car up. Reaching tenth-floor corridor, we smiled nervously. So far everything had gone accordingly to plan.
Richie Boy padded his pockets, as if he thought he might have been pickpocketed by the Invisible Man. Feeling his jacket, he nodded to indicate the jewelry was still on his person and then he rang the bell. A woman laughed and several second later the door opened.
Both of us stared, because the blonde was naked, but for high heels. She was in her late thirties, but her skin tone revealed a gym regime. When Richie Boy and I exchanged a puzzled glance, she smiled and drawled straight out of Texas, “C’mon in, boys, we’ve been waitin’ for y’all.”
She sashayed into the main suite, where her boyfriend rose from the satin couch. He was tall, athletic, and wearing only a bathrobe. Greeting Richie Boy with a handshake, he looked at me and asked, “Who’s your friend?”
Richie played it right and took the two diamond necklaces from his jacket. “He’s the protection for these.”
He draped the diamonds on the woman’s bare neck and she sat on the man’s lap. Even though they weren’t dressed and were from the best families in America, I didn’t trust them, but by the end of an hour Richie boy had sold one of the necklace. We took a cashier’s check for more money than either of us could earn in several years, but Richie Boy wasn’t happy, because he hadn’t sold the ruby.
Back at the store everyone congratulated Richie boy on the sale. His father shrugged and said, “I told you that he wouldn’t go for the ruby.”
“Yeah, you’re always right.” Richie retold the story a dozen times that day and probably several hundred more, including the day after Christmas. Lee came over and turned up his hearing aid, since he liked to hear about the schitzah’s being naked as much as the blonde buying his piece. “I love that story.”
“You would.” Manny commented, since Lee’s admiration of blonde gentile woman was endemic to the most Jewish men. “But I’ll tell you another story.”
“Not about your girlfriend!” Richie Boy groaned, fixing his purple label suit’s lapels.
“No, I’ll tell you a story about schitzahs that will curl your hair.” Manny smoothed down his Caesaresque coif for effect and then continued, “I was working down on the Bowery. Before you came to work for me, Richie.”
“Back in the Stone Age before the car and telephones!” Lee joked, but Manny was two years younger and said, “You remember those days just as good as me, if not better, but this was also when the blondes were really blondes and not out of a blonde. Well, maybe half of them were real.”
Manny had everyone attention, including the two Hassidic diamond brokers at the counter. “It was summertime, maybe 1971. Hilda and I were doing good. She was a lot like Richie in that she could sell rain to a picnic. Anyway this day she’s not working and I’m in the store with Norman.”
“Norman!” Everyone remembered Manny’s first employee and some not fondly, especially Richie Boy, who announced, “Best thing I did two years ago was fire that kuchleffle!”
As far as I could recall, Norman retired once he inherited his mother’s money, but Manny raised his hands, “Norman was a shit-stirrer, but back then he was a real lady’s man back then. Won the Lido Beach Club Body-building contest all through the sixties.”
“And you call that a talent?” Lee asked and Manny answered with a smile, “It worked for me. Anyway this one afternoon I see Norman outside talking with this beautiful blonde. I mean, she’s like a Vegas showgirl. He comes in with her and I expect him to want to use the vault, but instead he tells me she’s looking for a diamond ring. A big one. Five carat. I know not as big as Liz Taylor’s or and certainly not more money than you got for that diamond necklace.”
This story sounded very familiar, because I had heard it from Norman. Manny noticed this and said, “Norman likes to tell it that he sold her the diamond and got screwed later, but she said to me, “I have this boyfriend. He’ll buy me anything I want. He won’t chisel you for the price, but I want you to give me half the profit.”
“I couldn’t believe my ears and thought she was trying to pull a scam, but the guy came in, didn’t squawk about the price, and she left with him. Ring, box, go.”
“And so then what happened?” one of the Hassidic brokers asked, stroking his salt-and pepper beard.
“Well, she came back, just like she said she would. I paid her what I owed her.”
“Half?” Lee demanded incredulously.
“Fifty-fifty above my cost.” This split could have meant anything, but Manny stilled all other questions by saying, “She was happy, but gave me back the ring.”
“She wanted you to buy it back?” It would be the first time a woman did this to a man, however Manny shook his head. “No, she said she wanted me to sell it back to her.”
“What?” Everyone asked in unison.
“She tells me she has another boyfriend, who wants to buy her a ring, but she can’t have two, otherwise she won’t remember which is which could lead to complications, so she says, “Sell me this ring again and we’ll split the money fifty-fifty.”
Manny eyed everyone. I shrugged to signal I would ruin the punchline and nobody mentioned anything about the morality of what the woman proposed, but Manny admitted nothing by saying, “I did what I thought was best.”
“Which means, “Lee demanded.
“That nobody got hurt.” Manny’s last word coincided with the arrival of a young couple looking for an engagement ring. I heard Richie Boy start to say, “No one is luckier than Pete.”
Manny and Lee said, “Barbara.”
I glared over my shoulders to silence them and then turned to the young couple straight in from Connecticut and asked, “When are you getting married?”
“September,” the twenty-two year-old brunette announced as if the vision of her wedding was playing inside her mind.
“No, 2003.” The man put his arm around his future bride.
Manny and Richie Boy chuckled and said, “A WOT.”
They were probably right that doing missionary work with these two would be a waste of time, but you never knew where anything was going to lead, so I said, “Congratulations.”
And I wasn’t lying.