The Biggest Jew in Chicago Part 5

Older, more relaxed, and with no need to exert authority, Poppy’s affection for his grandchildren was enormous. The rind peeled, his sweetness emerged.

My father never tasted it.

Prior to the War, Dad studied at Wharton School of Business at University of Pennsylvania, his thesis covering the liquor industry but his heart wasn’t in it. When the War ended, Dad had ambitions to get into the air cargo business with another officer he’d met in Japan during the occupation. This was an emerging industry with exciting prospects for a young man. When he wrote Grandma of his plans, she shot his air cargo career out of the sky with a surface-to-air missive: “You’ll break your father’s heart.” After hearing that, telling Poppy of his dream was unthinkable, the prospect of confrontation unbearable.

The Oxford sales team, 1949. My father is 3d from right; my grandfather at far right.

He went to work for Poppy at Oxford as a street salesman. In Brooklyn. Tough territory. Poppy was tougher on him than any of his other salesmen, just to prove he wasn’t playing favorites. Dad was forbidden to enter his office but for anybody else at Oxford, secretaries to sales, the door was always open. Poppy was not a hard businessman; at heart a softy, the prospect of firing someone kept him up for nights beforehand.

When I was a kid, Dad would sometimes take me with him on his rounds. It seemed to me that Brooklyn liquor store owners were animals. They didn’t merely have rough edges, they were all rough, edges to the bone. Dad was not a natural salesman like Poppy. It was a square-peg gig for him. Worse, Poppy was a giant in the business, all these guys knew him, his reputation, were in awe, and respected him; they ate out of his hand.

They ate my father’s hand. Though he was 6’ 2”, 220lbs, and oh so far from a milquetoast, he felt like a midget, the weak son, an interloper in the dominion of his father, the king. He was well into his twenties before Poppy acknowledged that he was a man, and this is what earned his blessing: One day, Poppy – a sensitive, situationally volatile person behind the wheel never hesitating to mete out a good dressing down or worse to offending drivers who he felt slighted by – and Dad were in the Caddie in Manhattan when a truck cut them off as they approached a red light.

“Ken, get out of the car, go get him!” he exhorted. An obedient son, my father carried out his commanding officer’s orders. It was one of only a few bonding experiences they shared.

It used to drive my father crazy when Poppy leaned on him for being too tough with me; it was like Poppy had been abducted by aliens and returned a different man.

Poppy, Dad, and I. My Bar Mitzvah, 1964.

In the summer of 1964, on the cusp of thirteen, I visited Weatherford, the small town in Texas where my mother’s family hailed, home of my other grandfather, who died nine years before I was born, beatified, it seemed, by my mother and maternal grandmother after his death, was the polar opposite of Poppy, and, to me, an oppressive angel. He was the sky, Poppy the earth. My mother’s brother-in-law, my Uncle Bill, taught me how to drive, each afternoon taking me out on an old rural delivery route outside of town where the only thing I risked crashing into was a cow, an unlikely prospect in the extreme. I was physically ready; tall, I could reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel at the same time, and reasonably coordinated for the task. It was a heady experience.

A headier experience was yet to come. Chicago was the next stop on what had become an annual summer tour, and Poppy, upon learning of my new-found skill, decided that next class in the driver’s ed. syllabus would, naturally, be Urban Navigation, a relaxing motor along the tranquil streets, avenues and boulevards of a pedestrian-choked, traffic-packed metropolis.

No dummy, he didn’t tell Grandma of his plan for my higher education; he loved her dearly, why trigger a conniption fit leading to a massive stroke? And so two fools, one old enough to be my grandfather – wait, he was – the other old enough to know better but too young to care, embarked on a Disneyland attraction the Chicago Way, Mister and Master Toad’s Wild Ride Through The Loop – but, of course, without a Disney employee to panic-wrench the stop lever down at first scent of danger.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, alas, prevents me from recounting the adventure in detail. Suffice it to say, though I projected an air of insouciant confidence throughout l’affaire insanité, I’m quite sure that the grip indents on the steering wheel present at its conclusion were not so at its onset. I do, however, remember the car, a 1957 white Cadillac Coupe de Ville with two-tone gray interior kept in immaculate condition, though not through any manual effort by Poppy.

1957 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.

Occupants survived the ordeal intact, as did the car, pedestrians, and surrounding traffic and inanimate objects but it’s my understanding that afterward the poor Caddie exhibited strange tics, increased compression and resting rpm, tremors throughout the Body by Fisher, spasmodic air-intake to the manifolds, and distress in the lower tract, all of unknown origin. Had Poppy’s mechanic been a strict Freudian, I’m sure he would have recognized a classic case of GVAS, Generalized Vehicular Anxiety Syndrome. It’s in the American Automotive Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual; you could look it up.

Upon our return home, Poppy exulted to Grandma about our escapade, her characteristic rubbing of lower lip against upper when distressed accelerating into overdrive with each emerging detail. Silent throughout, at tale’s end she turned and walked into their bedroom, returning moments later with object in hand. She shook it in his face.

“Your wallet! You didn’t have your wallet! No driver’s license, no identification, no money, no nothing! What if -”

“- Aw, Molly, you should have seen him. The kid’s a pistol!”

Oh yes, he was my god.

By late adolescence, I realized that if I wanted to be a man in this family I’d have to transform the tall, skinny bookworm with zero physical confidence, who squirmed out of physical confrontations throughout childhood and teens due to cowardice and lived in chronic shame, into some semblance of Gertz. I went from one extreme to the other.

After Oxford Distribution shut-down in the mid-1950s, Poppy again worked for other men as a sales executive. In 1966, Grandma and Poppy moved to Florida, living in a small apartment in a new building on Collins Avenue in Bal Harbour, just north of Miami Beach. Poppy retired.

While still vigorous, he had health issues; he’d suffered a heart attack a few years back and had slowed down. He took long walks on the beach for exercise, and I’d walk along side and listen to him share his experiences. I ate them up, enraptured. But I couldn’t help noticing that the flesh on his torso was atrophying, his legs – always thin in comparison to his upper body, had become pencil-thin.

Grandma, her life with Poppy one of love and admiration and martyrdom punctuated with a liberal dose of tsks and resigned head shaking at his behavior, now had to cope with having him underfoot 24/7/365 as he tried to exert his authority over their domestic life, her turf. He was doomed: Grandma, in her way, was tougher than he was and treated him as an indulged, overgrown son that needed to be watched over and cared for but she had the gift of allowing him to feel that he was the king while she ran the kingdom; she was wife-mommy. His world had dramatically shrunk. He became Keeper of the Carpet, rigorously inspecting the bare feet of all who’d been on the beach before they entered the apartment, making sure the white wall-to-wall wasn’t stained by tar from the sand.


Dear Steve –

We were so pleased to receive your letter altho it reflected the mood that you were in, which is a perfectly natural thing for one to be moody at times – when young one may call them growing pains, you begin to look, take stock of yourself and your outlook on life begins to take on different views.

Before I write another word I want you to know that I am not writing a lecturing letter, for I too am like you. I will not do anything that I don’t wish to do. I know that I am a stubborn guy & just can’t be false to myself. If I don’t care for someone I keep my distance, I speak out as I please when I feel that I am right, altho many times I wish that I kept my big mouth shut…

One should always be a gentleman…

…All of us go thru certain stages of life with mixed feelings & I know that you will have your up & down charts, not because you are my grandson you are a pretty good thinking young man & will find yourself…

Talk about friend problems, as you know I know so many people, however I only had one real close friend in all my life one who I could discuss problems, women, etc.

Your letter so expressed my young feelings, when you say you feel like you’re living from the outside in. You are a part of life. Get over it Steve, this whole wide world is yours.

I want you to know that your Poppy is behind you 100%.

By the way, after reading your letter you sure know how to express your thoughts & feelings & you can become a writer (now don’t laugh).

Grandma & I are just fine – enjoying life & in a way each other, when she doesn’t pester me too much.



I sure write lousy

Only if penmanship trumps content.

Early one morning, from my foldout bed in their living room, I saw something that I never thought would occur. Through their slightly ajar bedroom door, I watched in amazement as Poppy wrapped phylacteries around his forearm and forehead and davened. My God bowed before another in submission.

Tomorrow: Part 6.

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