Running Errands for Mr. Dubinsky

by

12/02/2023

Neighborhood: Brooklyn

It was around 1975 and I was maybe 8 years old. My $2 a week allowance worked well for my humble needs, and I didn’t necessarily want or need a job at that age, but my dad would ask me to run errands every now and then and let me keep some of the left-over change from the transaction.

The errands consisted of the most basic and predictable stuff. Go out and buy loaf of bread, or a container of milk. Maybe pick up a newspaper. The requests were unpredictable but manageable for a kid to handle, sporadic errands that mainly involved me running outside to get odds and ends when my parents were too tired or lazy to do it themselves.

Occasionally though, my dad would get me to run errands for another man in the building named Mr. Dubinsky. He kind of looked like my dad, but was clearly older. My father, in his late 40s when I was born, was in his mid 50s by 1975. I am pretty sure Mr. Dubinsky was in his late 60s around that time.

As a kid, I didn’t know much about Mr. Dubinsky other than I often saw him hanging out in front of our building, wearing a dark raincoat or overcoat or something like that. He’d be gossiping and watching the days pass with the other old yentas on their folding chairs. He seemed like a decent enough guy from all I could tell.

Occasionally at our apartment, my dad would volunteer some trivial facts to me during the course of the day about Mr. Dubinsky. Like my dad would be vacuuming, and I would hear about how Mr. Dubinsky served in such-and-such army in Eastern Europe during World War II. Or this happened to him or that happened to him. I don’t remember much other than Mr. Dubinsky was a war veteran of some kind. Maybe in the Polish army or some other Eastern European armed force… Definitely not the U.S. army. All I knew as a young child was that it seemed my dad and Mr. Dubinsky had bonded on a deep level over their World War II experiences.

Anyway, one day I was playing around in my room when my dad came in from outside and asked me if I wanted to go and run an errand for Mr. Dubinsky.

“Sure,” I said. “What should I do?” My dad then gave me two dollars and said, “Get a bottle of hydrogen peroxide from Speedway Drugs and bring it to Mr. Dubinsky.”

“Okay,” I said as I put on my jacket, took the money and headed outside.

I walked over to Speedway Drug, which was right next to our building on the corner. First, I meandered around the vending machines, and then checked out the toy and candy section. Eventually I found where those small brown bottles of hydrogen peroxide were. I grabbed one and brought it up to the counter and paid for it, took the change and then headed back to our building.

On this occasion and others, I’d buzz Mr. Dubinsky’s buzzer and he would shout “Who is it?” and I’d say “It’s Jack. I have your stuff.” Sometimes I would have to say it —and even shout— a few times before he could hear me. But eventually he would buzz me in, and I would head upstairs to his apartment.

He lived on the third floor on our side of the building, one flight up from my family’s place, in an apartment that looked out of the front of the building, facing Ocean Parkway. When I got up to his hallway, I could sometimes see the light from his apartment peephole flicker a bit before he opened his door a crack to look down to the hallway and see who was coming.

When he’d see it was me, he’d open up and let me into his apartment.

Mr. Dubinsky’s apartment was sparse and barely furnished if you could call it furnished at all. There was no carpeting, only a small rug near his bed. The floors were exposed hardwood and worn out in spots. A few pots, pans, and plates could be spotted in the kitchen near the doorway and a few token pictures on the wall. There was a single dresser, one bed and a few chairs in the main area of the apartment. From my recollection, pretty much all of what he owned could probably have been shoved into one medium-sized suitcase or kept in a small closet; anything left over could easily have been abandoned and tossed in the trash without much care or concern. It was clear, even to me as a kid, that nobody else lived with him.

I’d give him the small paper shopping bag that had the hydrogen peroxide bottle in it as well as the change I got back from the transaction. He would open up the bag, check out the hydrogen peroxide bottle and look over the receipt inside, count the change and then pretty much gave me back the bulk of it as my “tip” for running the errand.

“Thank you,” he would say with a thick European accent, handing me the small pile of coins as we both walked back to his front door.

While Mr. Dubinsky didn’t have much in terms of objects or possessions in his apartment, I was blown away by the apartment’s westward view. Since his apartment was facing Ocean Parkway and there were no other buildings or objects in the way, the place was always sun drenched and the view was mostly sky and treetops.

I’d run back down to my family’s apartment, put the change in my little toy safe on my desk and then go back to doing whatever kid stuff I did.

Over the next few months I ran errands every now and then for Mr. Dubinsky, but eventually they just kind of stopped without any explanation. I didn’t know what happened, but months later my dad mentioned in passing that Mr. Dubinsky had died, and that was that.

There wasn’t any great fanfare or sadness about that. One day Mr. Dubinsky was alive and then the next he was just dead, and eventually his apartment was rented out to someone else whose name I never knew.

***

Jack Szwergold is a skilled web developer who has worked for Artforum and the Guggenheim Museum. He founded the Onion’s website in 1996 and currently works for the New School.

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