I came home to a frightening scene one Saturday afternoon back in the spring of 1950. I was 10 years old and had been at the movies all day with my friends.
I opened our apartment door and instantly smelled fire and tasted smoke. As I pushed the door in I saw my father on the floor, on his knees in front of his open closet in the foyer.
“Dad! Dad!” I screamed.
“It’s ok,” he said. “There was a fire, but I put it out.”
He was holding a half-full glass of water.
“Should I call the fire department?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I’ll call Jack Plotnick in a little while.”
We lived in the West Bronx, on a typical Bronx block filled with six-story apartment buildings interspersed with a few two-family houses. It was a working-class neighborhood populated by mostly Jewish families. The fathers went to work as cab drivers, haberdashery salesmen, garment center workers, candy store owners, truck drivers, teachers, tailors, pharmacists, house painters, fruit vendors, accountants, musicians, upholsterers and printers.
The mothers mostly stayed home and took care of the kids, shopped, cooked and cleaned.
Among the families in our building and the immediate vicinity, we were in the lower half of the economic spectrum. My father was a factory worker in the fur trade, a fur operator skilled at sewing together individual mink pelts into a coat, a cape or a stole. He was from a long line of furriers going back many generations in Russia. It was my grandfather’s skill in the fur trade that allowed him to even dream of moving to America in the early 1890s. The czar’s approaching “army recruiters” enabled his dream to come true sooner rather than later.
The problem of being a worker in the fur trade in those days was that the work was seasonal. And that meant there often were long stretches of time when my father was out of work. And that meant out of money.
There were few luxuries in our household. The four of us, my parents, my 16-year-old sister and I all lived in a one bedroom apartment. We didn’t spend summers at the beach or up in the mountains, as many of my friends’ families did. We didn’t own a car as more and more of our neighbors did. My mother didn’t own much jewelry and, despite my father’s trade, didn’t dress in furs.
My father hardly drank and never spent time in bars. He never ran around with other women and was not a big gambler. He did occasionally play in a floating crap game he helped organize for men in the neighborhood, but the stakes were relatively small. When he won, it was no more than the cost of a good meal for the entire family at The House of Chan in Manhattan. That’s how he used his winnings.
When he lost, it never impacted the family’s standard of living. At worst, it meant he would have to forego a couple of lunches of cream cheese on date nut bread at Schrafft’s during the week.
But my father did have one vice: fine clothes.
He didn’t have an extensive wardrobe, but what he had was fit for royalty – literally. He had always told us that when it came to his clothes, if he didn’t have the money, he would rather do without for a while than buy an item that was not the finest.
Of his four suits, the two oldest were bespoke, purchased before my sister was born. No one, including my mother, knew what he paid for them. After my sister came along, he compromised and bought his suits from the Men’s Shop at Saks Fifth Avenue for about $175. Saks was also his source for socks (French lisle) at $15 a pair; handkerchiefs (hand-rolled Irish linen) at $10 each; shirts (custom-made) at $30 each; and underwear (silk or Egyptian cotton) with no elastic but rather custom-sewn buttons to his fit at $20 each. (These prices are all in 1950s dollars when our rent was $42 a month and a pack of cigarettes cost 15 cents.)
My father’s ties were, of course, silk and came only from Sulka at about $25 apiece. His overcoats, one for winter, one for spring, were from F.R. Tripler at about $100. His grey fedora hats were from Cavanaugh at $40 apiece. Each of these retailers was pretty much known as the finest shop in the city for the merchandise each sold.
Every day of his working life my father left home dressed in a suit, a freshly laundered and pressed shirt, with a tie around his neck, a handkerchief in his outer breast pocket and a fedora slightly tilted on his head. He may have been a factory worker but no Wall Street lawyer ever looked better dressed.
And he came home every day, regardless of how hot or nasty the weather, looking exactly the same.
He cut a unique figure in our Bronx neighborhood. While he stood about 5’9” tall, with his slim build and tailored clothing, he always appeared taller. He walked at a brisk pace and with such a distinctive bounce in his gait that my friends learned to spot him approaching our building from three blocks away.
But if there was one item that defined my father more than any other, it was his shoes. He would never compromise on shoes. They were connected to his soul.
Again, he didn’t own many pairs of shoes. I can recall no more than three or four pairs at any one time. But everyone in the family and all close friends knew his occasional declaration: “These shoes are custom-made by the same boot maker who makes shoes for the Duke of Windsor.”
It had been a good number of years in that spring of 1950 since my father bought himself a new pair of shoes. The year before, he had taken his black wingtips to the boot maker for repairs and was told that they no longer could be refurbished. He continued to wear them, sparingly, throughout the year but by the spring, they were on their last legs. His problem was that he didn’t have the cash to order a new pair.
Now, he could have gone to Thom McAnn and gotten a pair of wingtips for about $12. Or, he could have gone a little more upscale and visited Florsheim and spent about $15 - $18. He might even have been able to get a pair of Bali shoes for $35 or $40.
But he would never compromise on shoes.
And that is where the situation stood on that spring Saturday – until the hand of fate (or some other hand) intervened.
The apartment was filled with smoke and an acrid stench. My father told me to open all the windows and I dutifully followed his instruction. When I got back to him, he was standing in front of his closet, looking down at the floor.
“My shoes are ruined,” he said mournfully. “My black wingtips are burned to a crisp.” Then he turned away and walked slowly into the kitchen. I followed and watched as he opened a cabinet and took out a bottle of Cherry Heering, his favorite alcoholic beverage. He took a small glass and filled it halfway and then sat at the table and sipped quietly.
After about 15 minutes he got up and went to the phone in the foyer.
“I’m going to call Jack Plotnick now,” he said. He put on his glasses, looked up the number in our address book and dialed.
“Hello, Jack. This is Luke Miller. I’m sorry to bother you, but we had a little accident down here, a little fire,” he told Plotnick. “Yeah, we’re all ok, everyone’s fine. But, could you come right down? OK. Good.”
Plotnick, one of our upstairs neighbors, was a very successful, self-employed insurance agent. His agency sold all forms of insurance – personal, business, life, burglary, fire. And he was as persistent as, well, an insurance salesman. I remember the many times he sat at our kitchen table with my mother and father trying to convince them to buy a small life insurance policy to “just take care of final expenses.” But each time he left without making the sale. My parents told him they couldn’t afford it, even when Plotnick said, “But it’s only a couple of dollars a month.” My parents never had life insurance.
Within three minutes of my father’s call, Plotnick was at our door. He was a short, pudgy man of about 50 with horn-rimmed glasses and curly grey, thinning hair. He always seemed out of breath.
“What happened? I smell it. Where was the fire?” he asked.
My father directed him to the closet.
Plotnick looked in. He stared at the floor and bent down and touched the ruined shoes. Then he stood and looked at the clothes – my father’s suits and ties and overcoats. He took out each piece of clothing on its hanger, examined it and put it back. Then he looked up at the closet ceiling, pushed the clothes aside and looked into the back of the closet and then all the way to the left and right.
“What happened here?” he asked my father.
“I smelled smoke and saw it coming from under the closet door. When I opened the door I saw flames so I got some water and put it out. It must have been electrical, a spark or something,” my father suggested.
“But there aren’t any wires in your closet,” Plotnick told him. “Could you have dropped a cigarette or an ash?”
My father shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. He didn’t know.
“It’s amazing,” Plotnick said. “Luckily, the only thing damaged by the fire is a pair of shoes.”
My father agreed it was lucky.
“Well, your fire insurance policy will pay for your shoes,” Plotnick announced with a smile. “All you have to do is get me a sales receipt and I’ll take care of the rest.”
“Wait here,” my father said. “I have it in the bedroom.”
He came back a minute later holding a yellow store receipt. “I save all my clothing receipts,” he told Plotnick as he handed him the bill.
Plotnick took the receipt and peered at it through his thick lenses. “Wait a minute,” he said. “There’s a problem here.”
“What’s wrong?” my father asked.
“The decimal point is in the wrong place,” Plotnick said. “The way this is written, it looks as if the shoes cost $125, not $12.50. You’ll have to get a new bill.”
“That’s not a mistake, Jack,” my father said. “The shoes cost $125.”
“Now, come on, Luke. Are you kidding? $125 for a pair of shoes? What are they made of, gold?”
And my father responded: “Jack, these shoes are custom-made by the same boot maker who makes shoes for the Duke of Windsor. That’s what they cost. I can show you the receipts for the others in the closet. Better yet, call the company and you ask them. And ask them if I’m a customer.”
Plotnick glanced at my father with his head slightly tilted to the side and a half smile on his face. “So, tell me, how much does this cost?” He was holding the sleeve of a navy overcoat.
“About $100,” my father said. Plotnick slapped his right palm against his jowly cheek and quietly moaned.
“And this,” Plotnick asked as he held out a tie from the rack on the door. “What, you’re going to tell me about $15?”
“No,” my father said. “It’s from Sulka and it costs $25.”
“Ok, you win. I’ll see what I can do.” And Plotnick left.
It wasn’t too long before my mother returned home from her job selling women’s hats at Lord & Taylor. My father filled her in on the details, including Plotnick’s visit.
“What was Plotnick doing here?” my mother asked.
“I’m putting in a claim under the fire insurance policy,” my father offered.
“Fire insurance!” my mother exclaimed in a tone two octaves above normal. “Since when do we have fire insurance?”
“Well, last year I was outside talking to Plotnick and I asked him how fire insurance worked. And before I knew it, he convinced me to buy a small policy,” my father explained.
My mother said: “But fire insurance? You said we couldn’t even afford life insurance. Why would you buy fire insurance?”
“Well, Plotnick says it’ll pay for my shoes.”
One evening about ten days later, Plotnick showed up with a check. He gave it to my father and said, “You know Luke, after you showed me the cost of everything in your closet, I got to thinking. You really need a larger policy.”
And my father said: “You know what, Jack. My wife says we can’t afford a policy anymore. I’ll have to cancel it now.”
My father never talked about the fire after that. For a couple of weeks, both my mother and sister periodically pressed him about what happened. He told them time after time it was just an accident.
I couldn’t understand why they kept pestering him. He told what happened and that was it. What more did they want? I believed he was a hero; he put out the fire and maybe saved the apartment, the building.
It was a few years later, when I was about 15 or 16, that I thought about the incident and it dawned on me why they kept quizzing him.
What had happened on that long-ago Saturday? My father was always smoking. His Chesterfields left more than a couple of burn marks on the living room coffee table, his dresser, the linoleum in the foyer.
Maybe he dropped a book of matches on his closet floor. Maybe he went to his closet with a cigarette in his hand. Maybe a hot ash fell onto the matches and they burst into flame. And maybe he unknowingly fanned the flames when he closed the door, only to smell smoke and see it seeping from the closet a few minutes later.
On the other hand, a fire insurance policy?
Berton Miller is a retired ad agency owner, former Adjunct Professor of Communications at Iona College
and sporadic freelance writer. He grew up in the Bronx and now lives in Manhattan and Sag Harbor with
his wife (and muse), Ivy, and their yellow Lab, Bravo.