Friday, September 18, 2009

Alex: Fruit, the Mafia and Cigarettes

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

When I was 13 years old, there was a storefront diagonally across the street from our apartment which was shared by fruit stand run by Alex, and a butcher shop controlled by a man named Ruby. In the narrow space which was essentially cut down the center, each had a freezer, counter, and space for their wares.

My mom had me pick up some produce one day, and as I was walking out of the store, as a second thought I turned back and asked Alex for a job. I thought he said to come back in two weeks through a thick Italian drawl further complicated by the constant cigarette dangling from his lips.

I spent the next two weeks wondering if I had heard correctly, and pondering if I was going to make a fool of myself by showing up. I suppose I could have just ignored it all and continued on in my life, but I found the courage to be there. He said, that I could somewhat figure out, Saturdays, 10 to 3 PM, five dollars, start the next week. And I did, for the next three years. In all that time, I never saw Ruby, because he was Orthodox and did not open his store on Saturdays.

At the time I was short and rail thin, probably no more than 90-100 pounds. My main job was to hang around until Alex received a request from a customer (some were standing weekly orders), and then deliver it by bicycle. This bike was made of some sturdy metal, had only one gear, and was unwieldy thanks to its enormous weight. Also, it had a huge metal frame basket on the front. Alex rented it on a monthly basis from an Orthodox man a few blocks away who Alex certainly did not trust, nor like. Then again, Alex was generally suspicious of everyone, though we got along pretty well.

As well as the bike being solid, the fruit orders were put in boxes and sometimes weighed in at 50 pounds, or about half my weight, especially around Passover. For weeks, my legs ached from the hard peddling, and my arms were sore from carrying the boxes up to the customers, but I built up my first muscles over time, limited as “the guns” were.

It took me a while to start to understand what Alex was saying; at first, I didn’t need to comprehend much as he would write down the address with a thick grease pencil whose point was wrapped in paper and opened with a pull string to expose the point as needed, give me change for $20, and send me on my lumbering way. One Saturday, about 2 or 3 weeks after I started and was still a bit unsure, I came back from an order from a customer of whom Alex distrusted, which I could tell right off. He asked me, in a conspiratorial tone, “Hey, a-Robby, how much a-tip?” This was something he had never questioned before, but it was more about the customer. I responded, truthfully, “Fifteen cents.” Disgusted, he replied, “Fifateen a-cent? Fuckin-a-SON-a-ma-bitch!” Soon I found out that this was his expression, and he used it often. It still brings a smile to my face when I think of it. My pal Bernie Kugel has been imitating it since I first told him about it in the mid 1970s, well after I left the job. Over time, I started to catch on to the dialect.

Alex was an older man at that time, probably in his mid-70s, hunched over and standing around 5’5” (though I get the impression that he was once handsome and taller in his youth), cigarettes a constant (he smoked 3 or 4 packs a day) along with a smoker’s cough, and a solid body of muscle hidden under his white jacket. Once after a shipment from a produce supplier, Alex said, “a-Robby, check d’potatiz”; the Idaho potatoes came in bags of 50 pounds. In the center of his half of the store was a big hanging scale, such as one sees in supermarkets. The basket part lifted off and what was left was a metal hook. Again, not trusting the produce company and afraid of getting short-weighted, Alex wanted me to lift the bag of potatoes up to the hook, which was level with my head. As hard as I tried, I could pick up the bag, but not lift it high enough to get it on the hook. Red faced – from exercise and embarrassment – I had to tell him I could not do as he asked. Alex, mid-70s cigarette huffing hobbled over that he was, picked up the bag with one hand and put it on the hook, while looking at me and saying in a worried voice, “Atsa madda witcha Robby, yoo sick?”

In all the years I worked for Alex, I never cheated him, and he always gave me fruit to eat while I was there; usually he would cut off a piece with a knife he constantly carried to give a customer to show the freshness (he would never give the whole fruit), and then give me the rest when the customer left. Mostly, he trusted me, though the only times I recall his suspicion was if I called in sick (which was not often, even in the coldest of days). On those days, he would come up to my apartment to check up on me, to make sure I was not just being lazy. He would not leave until he clasped his eyes on me, to confirm my illness himself.

My mother and some of her friends would buy cigarettes from Alex for $5 a carton, which was relatively cheaper than from the store. Alex also took “numbers.” He enjoyed doing this because he didn’t like the price stores charged for butts. Alex loved three things, two of them being cigarettes and the mafia.

During World War I, when Alex was young and strapping, he worked in the shipyards in Sicily. Things like gasoline and cigarettes were hard commodities to come by in those days. One morning while hauling a load on the docks, a stranger asked Alex for a smoke, and in a moment of compassion, he gave the guy the whole pack and the matches. As it turns out, this stranger was a high ranking don, and he was so impressed by Alex’s generosity, he paid for Alex to take the boat to the United States, and arranged for him to start his store. Alex happily paid back the kindness through black market butts and numbers.

Alex’s third love was women. According to my mother, Alex was quite the lothario in Bensonhurst, and fathered many a child to the wives or girlfriends of GIs abroad during World War II. I don’t recall him mentioning any wives or children, but he was always looking and admiring others’ partners.

A few years after I moved on, Alex retired on the money he had saved through the black market material. This was after the meat half of the store closed when Ruby died, and Alex did not like having to pay full rent for the space. It is now a Russian deli and chocolate store.

Alex died in his early 90s, despite all his smoking, which he did until the end. Before that, occasionally I would see him playing cards with other retired gents in the local park on Cropsey Avenue and Bay Parkway. Sometimes I heard him before seeing his presence, especially when he lost a hand and would cry out, “Fuckin-a-SON-a-ma-bitch!”

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