My father got to New York in 1939. He escaped Warsaw just ahead of the Nazis. He was 25 and had left his family behind. All perished.
He went to London. After a few weeks friends from the Jewish Labor Bund helped him get passage on the old Queen Mary, the one with 3 smokestacks. It was the last transatlantic voyage she would make before being turned into a troop carrier.
One evening, while waiting for the great ship to leave, he noticed he was being followed by a policeman. Seeing the uniform he walked a little faster. The policeman walked a little faster. My father walked a little faster. The policeman walked a little faster. Then a large hand landed on my father’s shoulder.
“Excuse me, sir, but you look lost. Can I help?”
Policemen who followed young Jewish socialist men down the dark streets of Warsaw or Lodz did not traditionally stop them to offer assistance. The copper who pointed the lost soul in the right direction, along with the Magna Carta and the English Common Law, established in our Chaim a lifelong respect for things British.
At that moment he became an Anglophile.
His Anglo enthusiasm included thick Shetland sweaters, venerable Scottish whisky, Charles Laughton, Aneurin Bevan, Hugh Gaitskill, Herbert Morrison (Chaim never discriminated between the left and right wings of the Labour Party), Edward Elgar, sausage rolls, Ewan McColl, the Rule of Law and the British democratic tradition.
He had considerable respect for the Royal Family, judging it the equal of Hollywood and the Roman Catholic church when it comes to putting on great spectacle.
Eventually, he headed up a trade association of small manufacturers in the garment business in New York, “contractors”: mostly Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Hispanic: and turned himself into some kind of American success.
It was called the Infants & Children’s Novelties Association. Later, probably because few people knew what a “novelty” was anymore, it changed its name to the Infants & Children’s Sportswear Association.
I didn’t know what a novelty was until someone said it was “snow suits and things like that”.
Snowsuits were one-piece Eskimo overalls for toddlers, with mittens attached to the cuffs by strings. The kids disappeared into the snow suits and the mittens disappeared in their thousands, despite the strings. Not losing them would have been a novelty.
I never discovered what other “things like that” referred to. “Sportswear” covered all sins, and novelties.
The men and one woman who made up the association were owners of small garment factories or “shops”. They were called “contractors” because they contracted to work for the big manufacturers who actually designed and branded the clothes and sold them to the Macys, Gimbels, Lord & Taylors and Saks Fifth Avenues. They did piece work, almost never the whole garment.
The big manufacturers were the knights of the industry. Men like Carl Rosen of Puritan cut elegant and imposing figures in finely tailored suits, a succession of film stars (or “starlets”) on their arms, and race horses in the country.
The contractors were usually short, pugnacious men who smoked cigars a few sizes too large and talked a few decibels too loud. They argued as a way of life, over anything, especially when negotiating the cost of button holes or pleats. Almost none had been to college but all had degrees in hard knocks, some advanced.
They were men making a go of it.
They knew failure as well as success. In the garment business disasters were numerous but rarely fatal. Like a hit record, one good season could propel you through several bad ones.
And like the Brooklyn Dodgers, they had faith in “next year”. No matter how many times you struck out, there was always another season, another time at bat.
They were known to each other by single names: Karasic, Russo, Liu, Saporta, Famiglia, Posner. I never heard anyone addressed as “Mister”. “Professor”, yes; “Doctor”, yes; even “Your Honor”, all terms of kidding, mocking affection.
First names were for wives or girlfriends—-or both. It was a long time before I discovered that Karasic was born Isadore and Saporta was also Hymie.
They were capitalists: moguls in miniature. But they had not yet acquired that disease of American success and affluence, that corroding sense of self-entitlement. They had a shared humanity. All had been chased from somewhere else, somewhere far worse. Never for a moment did they forget it.
They spoke English with foreign accents, rarely the same ones. Even the eastern European Jews, who were from all over the pale of settlement, didn’t sound the same. Now Americans and New Yorkers, they couldn’t believe their luck. But they took nothing for granted. They worked all hours and all angles.
And while they themselves would describe their industry as “dog-eat-dog”, they were considerate and generous in a way only people who have seen how bad the world can really be are generous. For them, the Second World War was yesterday, the Great Depression last week. They remembered both. New York was their salvation. It was also their diaspora.
Two principles: catastrophe was just around the corner. And someone was always worse off than you.
If a police officer was killed in the line duty a fund would be established for the family. The contractors would be the first to put their hands in their pockets.
Of course, if pulled over by a traffic cop for being less than respectful to a stop sign or doing 60mph in a 40mph zone, they would take out their wallets to show their license. But the first thing the cop would see would be a large, raised Police Benevolent Association logo on the wallet. Inside the license sleeve, which you might just happen to notice when the license was removed, were letters from the head of the PBA, the Mayor, their priests, rabbis—anyone with a title declaring what a good citizen and fine human being and upstanding citizen the holder was for supporting the police, the firemen, the sanitation workers, etc, etc.
They were tough cookies, fit enough to survive and even prosper in a tough game in the toughest town. But they were no fans of Hobbes and they weren’t Social Darwinists.
It was a tough world all right, but that was why you shouldn’t be a shit, especially a complete shit.
(And anyway when you were less than a generation away from the Old World, in southern Italy or eastern Poland or western China, where the opportunity for a person to advance, no matter what their energy and talent, was zero, this new world wasn’t THAT tough.)
They grew their businesses from a few sewing machines to 75 or a 100 or more and helped thousands of women operators, who spoke less English than they did, support families. Some contractors were only a few years off the boat, but already had bought their own houses, drove their own cars and made good lives for their families in Long Branch, Asbury Park, Syosset and Yonkers.
They were capitalists, but also citizens, lifting others along with themselves. They had, it seems almost awkward to say today, a sense of civic responsibility.
Nobody was rich. Who dreamed of rich? Rich was for people in the glossy magazines and Technicolor, movies starring Tab Hunter and Yvette Mimieux and a beach. Rich was an MGM fantasy, good for two air-conditioned hours on a hot Saturday night.
Going to Chinese restaurants, going to Florida, raising a family, having a kid go to college: that was rich.
They were grateful to my father and that gratitude made them dangerous. They could kill you, with food.
When Henry Caruso invited you to dinner at his house in the Jersey Highlands, course after course was carried from the kitchen by regimes of Caruso women.
Platters of pasta were followed by eggplant parmesan. Then roasted chickens. Then veal scaloppini. And when it was impossible to consider eating another thing, out came an enormous platter of pot roast and vegetables. Desserts made their appearance. Cakes, cannolis stuffed to bursting, biscotti in several flavors. You had to eat something of everything and say yes to more.
Looking down the table you’d see the Caruso clan piling it in, joyously, with gusto.
They weren’t eating because they were hungry, they were eating to eat, to celebrate, to show the world and themselves that the life they hungered for was here because they had made it, and it was good.
Finally out of the kitchen, for her curtain call, slipped the maestro of the meal, Mrs Caruso. Up to that point she had only been a head darting in and out of the dining room, a nervous mother hen checking on the appetite of her chicks.
The Chinese contractors held their gastronomic assaults in Chinatown.
Tony Liu’s dinners were in a small and undoubtedly family-owned restaurant off Mott Street.
They consisted of uncounted plates of beef, pork, duck, sweet and sour fish and several you probably wouldn’t want to know anyway dishes. Dinner always ended with Winter melon soup. Winter melon, it turns out, is not a melon but a rather large gourd, rude in shape to boot: long, fat, curved and hairy. But the soup was spectacular and in spite of being gorged, we all waited for it.
Leather pouches filled with marbles—or pearls for all I knew—-were going away gifts for the women.
Hospitality was not limited to the table. When my mother was in the hospital in the early 60’s for “a procedure”, her room could have been mistaken for the flower shop in the lobby. Then Hymie Saporta, a Sephardic Jew of large enthusiasms, large rings, large generosity and no inhibitions entered. He was nattily dressed in what he proudly announced to my mother was “a new $400 suit”, even though her interest in sartorial detail was at that moment at a low ebb. He carried a gift: in a mature forest it would have been a modest tree. In that hospital room it was a Redwood.
There were always tickets to be had for courtside seats to the Knicks at the old Madison Square Garden on 48th Street and 8th Avenue. Given the Knicks of that era—-Kenny Sears, Ray Felix, Willie Naulls and Richie Guerin-and others you haven’t heard of——those tickets weren’t always in such great demand. But World Series tickets to The Stadium were, and signed baseballs by the 1956 Yankees and tickets to the latest Broadway shows.
Today this may look like a little payola, but it was simply gratitude.
My father kept everyone going. He was the center of the the wheel.
He helped negotiate contracts between the contractors, the big manufacturers and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. He knew all the key players and was trusted by all.
He was a fixer, and that was his ambition and pleasure.
He introduced A to B and B to C. A had a project and B had appropriate skills. C knew how to make it happen. Prices were negotiated, Hands were shaken. Sewing machines sewed. Prosperity ensued.
He was a professional Confident—-with senior union officers, with manufacturers, with contractors. People came to him for advice. They whispered in his ear. They came to our table with anxiety. The got coffee, babka and advice. They left feeling better.
They valued his judgment as well as his connections. He always had his members’ interests at heart. The contractors knew it and had confidence in him.
They knew he was more interested in bringing the the issue to a successful conclusion: in having influence instead of having money.
Being listened to, respected, being the hero of the moment and to the group, was his own measure of success. So their interests coincided.
A natural net-worker, he smoothed the way, keeping the shops working and profitable, the machines humming, the workers employed. He knew the individual strengths of each shop and matched it with the appropriate job. He untied knots and brought people together.
He found the common ground. Things worked.
One does well, all do well. That’s the way America worked.
Today, of course, that idea would be the real novelty.