Noted people reference their Fathers as they answer the question: “What would your Father have said?”
My Father would have at least asked me what I meant by that. Dad always gave me a chance to explain. He always felt he had so much more in life to learn, and not enough allotted time to soak it all up. The shame that I carry on my shoulders forever is a simple fact of most men’s lives: we often don’t recognize or acknowledge the gems in our possession until a much later time than those gems were ours to make use of.
The era was that of the twisted pretzel.
I mean the really, really twisted pretzel. And boy, oh boy were they large. In those days, a true pretzel had to be authenticated by a connoisseur. Us kids were all connoisseurs. The size of the pretzel was for sure of great significance, as was the correct amount of coarse salt sprinkled on top of it. While I don’t have the exact measurements of the earliest of pretzels, I do remember having a single pretzel as my lunch or dinner on any given day.
In my area of Brooklyn, New York, there were pretzel vendors all over the place. They pushed their two-wheel wagons into busy neighborhoods; some would hawk their wares by shouting out to people as they passed them on the street, while others were content to merely find a spot on a corner and wait for their trade to come by. The strange part about all this was their lack of formal identity. They were the Pretzel Guys. No names, just the Pretzel Guy.
“What does your husband do?”
”Oh, he’s the Pretzel Guy,
A dignified man,”
Answering with a sigh.
Catering to his neighborhood’s needs,
Providing for the betterment of society.
His product twisted, so curiously designed;
Taste buds celebrating,
Though shape maligned.
Offering each, a child’s delight
For one thin and single dime.
Without candlelight, yet sublime.
Our Pretzel Guy was no more unique I guess than the average Pretzel Guy of his time. But he was ours; you heard me right, he was ours. We didn’t have anything handheld like calculators, radios, cell phones; digital things of any kind were non-existent. At night, we all came home and looked at the radio as we listened. I hate to admit to this, but our family didn’t have a refrigerator, a washer or dryer, or vacuum cleaner.
When we finally made it big time, we celebrated our success as one of the first in the neighborhood to have a telephone. It was a thing called a party line. In most cases, there were three or four families who shared the same line. Each family had their own separate phone number, but if one of the other families happened to be on the line at the time someone was calling us, the person calling in would get a busy signal.
You might imagine the confrontations that would arise when one of the folks on your party line was making a phone hog of themselves and refused to cut their call short when requested to do so. We all developed our own dialogue used to get the hog off the phone. It got to the point where everyone on a party line knew everyone else, and had a nasty retort or two as a comeback to almost anything being claimed.
As an example, my older sister, impatient over waiting to make her own call to a friend, picked up the phone and in an impassioned tone pleaded with the party on the line: “My Father is having a seizure. Please get off the line so I can call for help.”
You had to see the priceless expression on my sister’s face when she heard the woman on the other end of the line yell out the tenement window, “Charlie you better run home! You’re having a seizure!”
What a shame nothing like that can happen today. It’s what I refer to as a “lived-in experience.” Our possessions were our very own treasures, forever to be treasured. They came in many shapes, and forms, people and things not withstanding.
Aside from the similarity of one Pretzel Guy to another, there did exist some degree of showmanship and competition amongst these peddlers. There was one guy who played a harmonica and another who entertained the passersby with violin playing. Later on and way after the fact, it was explained to me that many of these street people were accomplished musicians who became Pretzel Guys because it was the only way they could make a living. It opened my eyes to many things that were the way of the world for immigrants of the era.
These men and women had a life’s assignment. They came to our country to prosper. Wow! How simple a phrase — to prosper, to make it, to become a good American citizen. Family, country, and beliefs in a higher level of spirit were the universal credo of those who selected the United States of America as the destination that would provide an environment in which they could prosper.
And though he pushed a pretzel wagon, he exuded a prideful nature. This to some may not have been considered a calling, but to our Guy his offerings weren’t merely a twisted piece of dough. He placed your pretzel carefully on a single piece of wax paper and handed it to each customer with a “denk you.”
Somehow, a feeling of mutual respect was on display. At the time, I was too young to understand what I was feeling about these people, human beings who shared my culture, who in their own way deeply influenced my life.
Our Guy wore an apron, and dependent on the time of year, followed the dictates of the whether regarding his selection of clothing. You might imagine a similarity of dress between all of the street vendors. One didn’t have to take a trip to Europe in order to get the flavor of their style. By and large, most of the street peddlers had a clean appearance.
Many of the vendors, with all the different goodies we grew to love, operated their respective businesses on the east side on a street named Belmont Avenue. To this day, in my mind’s eye, I can easily conjure a visualization recapturing the sights, sounds, and distinct smells of the place, especially in the summertime. Nothing expressly overpowering, but make no mistake…while it wasn’t a rose garden, it remains mine to treasure.
One day, close to the end of a well-played summer, my friends and I had vacated the local schoolyards and our ferocious schedule of having fun, in order to trek along with our Mothers to secure our clothing and school supplies for the upcoming, beginning of a new term of torture. In other words, back to school time was arriving far too quickly than any of us liked.
As my Mom and I returned to our neighborhood after a long day of bargain hunting, I looked forward to having my favorite pretzel presented to me by my favorite Pretzel Guy. (It still remains hard to believe I never learned his name.) When we arrived at our Pretzel Guy’s usual location, there was his pushcart but not our regular Pretzel Guy. When we asked about our Pretzel Guy’s whereabouts, we were told the new guy was only going to be there for a day or two and that our regular Pretzel Guy was away doing something for his family.
While the pretzel was the same, not having my friends alongside and not having my regular Pretzel Guy there, coupled with never enjoying my Mom’s company during meals, added to my less than normal ecstatic nature. Nevertheless, we ate and unceremoniously made our way home.
During this period of time, our family had taken up residence in our own home located on 94th Street, between Avenue A and B, in an area known as East Flatbush, Brooklyn. The houses were all built very close to one another, and all looked exactly the same. Each home was a two story duplex with an additional basement apartment. A narrow, single car width driveway between them separated the homes. My Mother was able to easily hold a conversation with our next-door neighbor across the driveway from us.
So, there we were back at home, my Mom was preparing dinner for the family. My Father was about a half hour away from returning from work. I was on the front porch aimlessly looking down the street in an effort to drum up an early evening game of stickball before darkness set in. There wasn’t a friend in sight. As a matter of fact, it was unusually quiet for our street.
I heard the strains of a violin playing in the distance. As I strained to see where the music was coming from, the familiar outline of a figure came towards our house. As he came closer, I began to recognize the man playing the violin.
I ran into the house shouting, “Ma, it’s the Pretzel Guy. Our Pretzel Guy is almost here!”
My Mom yelled back at me, “It’ll ruin your dinner.”
“You don’t get it Ma,” I said. “It’s our Pretzel Guy playing the violin!”
With this, my Mother came quickly to the front of the house. By now, the Pretzel Guy was in the driveway between the two houses. Our Pretzel Guy was dressed in a suit and tie. In a minute or two, many of our neighbors had gathered around him in addition to those who stuck their heads out of the windows on our second floor. The piece he was playing came to an end and everyone applauded; some tossed change down into his outstretched cap. In a moment, he began playing another tune, but this time as he played he moved back down the driveway towards the street and ultimately to the next house in line.
When my Dad came home, I couldn’t wait to relate the story of our violin playing Pretzel Guy. My Father wasn’t the least bit surprised. He explained to me how the violin playing was our Pretzel Guy’s nighttime and weekend job.
I was surprised and taken aback by this new revelation. But, it wasn’t the end of our Pretzel Guy’s surprises. I found out much later on that he was part of a group of men, each with their own special talents carried from the old country, which found an inability to support themselves and their families while in pursuit of their true, lifelong passions. The prideful lessons received by all who came in contact with them were never anything short of inspiring and, to many of us, empowering as well.
In the ensuing months and years, and up until the end of the world at war, many of these people indirectly became part of my life. From musicians to craftsmen in every imaginable field of endeavor, these immigrant men and women performed the services used and recommended by my family…
And, one day I came to understand what my Father meant when he allowed, “Charity begins at home.” I wonder if that was the reason he always insisted on buying American products.
What would your Father have said?