I want to tell you how it is with me. At the same time I have a little fear of giving myself away, so I am going to pretend that this is about two cats.
First, I suppose you’re going to find out that I had myself a business, and the business failed, which is exactly the wrong word. Murdered is more correct, and I can point a finger and say that whether God did it or Rabinowitz and his son-in-law did it, you be the judge.
You have to understand that mine was not an ordinary bakery that bakes bread, cakes, cookies. From the very beginning, more years ago than I care to remember right now, we made only bagels. Mind you, not ordinary cellophane-wrapped bagels of the kind yokels buy in the supermarket, but bagels for bagel connoisseurs. I challenge you to find better within 50 miles of Times Square.
My store was not on the lower East side or the upper West side of Manhattan, but in Queens in a neighborhood that was 80 percent Gentile when I first started selling bagels there 26 years ago. I assure you this was long before any of the assimilateds even thought that it was chic to be a connoisseur of Jewish food. Within days of the time I first opened my store, a bona fide Gentile woman—I’m not guessing because she wore a small gold cross on a chain around her throat— came in and said “What are bagels?”
What is the sun? What is the moon, you might ask. “Please be so good as to look around,” I said to her. “What you see is not just bread in the form of a ring, but special, rich, thick, doughy, chewy, wonderful onion bagels, pumpernickel bagels, poppy seed bagels, and none of them, not even the plain bagels, taste anything like any kind of bread you ever ate, here try a sample, no charge” and with sanitary wax paper I picked up a piece of bagel from the sample basket on the counter and offered it to her with a flourish of my other hand that could have accompanied the gift of a jewel.
That Gentile lady left with a full dozen and a smile. Not only did she have good taste, but she must have had a lot of friends. Within days all sorts of Gentile women and men, too, came in for bagels by the threes, or half dozen, or even a dozen for which I gave a quantity discount. (Contrary to popular superstition, not every Jew has a good business instinct, but I know how to attract people to buy more at one time by giving them a discount. I also had a sign that said “You can freeze bagels in your freezer, stock up now.”) You may ask how I knew that these were Gentile customers, after all, not all the ladies wore crosses and in a bakery you don’t have an opportunity to see if a man has been circumcised or not. Which is a joke I make, because by that time in Queens nearly everybody was getting circumcised, if not by a merle then by a doctor who made you fill out a Blue Cross paper. I knew these people had to be Gentiles because they came into the store and looked around as if they were in a museum. I ask you, would a Jew stare at a bagel? He would come in, take a number if the store was crowded, and when his turn came he would say “Three plain” or “Six onion” or whatever was on his mind. The fact is that Jews take bagels for granted and Gentiles don’t, which means when they discover bagels they appreciate them even more.
We didn’t have shopping malls yet in those days. My store, which was one of 11 stores in one block, over the years prospered to the point that when my daughter Rivka was set to get married, I was able to make up to her for the loss of her mother too many years ago by renting Veterans Hall for after the wedding and throwing a reception with so much food she could have invited her whole high school class and there would have been plenty left over. In fact I told Rivka and her husband Bruce that if they wanted to save money they could move into my brick house and live on the second floor rent free.
Bruce was a proud young man, red haired with a mustache, too. Even in summer he wore a vest so his Phi Beta Kappa pin on a chain would have a background. This independent intellectual said he didn’t want them to intrude on my life but made me think maybe I wasn’t as perfect a person to live with as I had imagined all these years I have been a widower.
Last spring, one day after work, not even two blocks from my bagel place, I passed an empty store with a sign in the window that said, “Coming Soon Queens’ Best Bagels.” My heart stopped. I mean for a second I thought I was dead.
From my lungs grief came out like a wail that could have been heard all the way to the Midtown Tunnel to Manhattan. With so many empty stores in five boroughs of New York, why in the name of God did any human being want to open a bagel store two blocks from my store, open for 26 years?
People were staring at me. Was it because of the sound I made? Or did I look like a man having a heart attack in the middle of the street?
I shuffled home and sat in front of my Magnavox, not turning it on, just thinking. Shouldn’t I find out who the owner of the store is? Shouldn’t I get in touch with him and see if he is a type of individual who listens to reason?
I’m not a person who sits around waiting for the Messiah. I found out who was the landlord of the stores on that block. I told him my name was Cheskis, that I owned the bagel store down the street for 26 years, I told him when I saw the sign I was shocked, and did he know who was planning to open up a new bagel store less than two blocks away from mine? (Of course he knew, the question was would he tell me?)
He said, “I rent from the highest principles. Unless there is a restrictive clause in someone else’s contract, whoever wants to rent from me, rents from me. I don’t care if you have a bowling alley and somebody wants to put up a bowling alley on the next block, if I own both blocks, it’ll have two bowling alleys.”
Clearly this landlord was not the kind of man who would one day have an intellectual for a son-in-law. But by letting him rave on about his principles, he without thinking gave away the information I was after. The man who had leased the store was named Hyman Rabinowitz.
I’m not a time waster. I figured Hyman Rabinowitz wasn’t from Manhattan or the Bronx. Why else would he even think of opening a store in Queens unless he also lived in Queens and didn’t want to travel a distance to work? It took no brains to go through the Rabinowitzes in the Queens white pages and find out that there were two Hymans and one of them had a Rev. in front of his name so I called the other one and said in my best telephone voice to the woman who answered, “Excuse me, I am calling the man who is opening a bagel store on Adler Avenue . . . .” Before I could finish my thought, the woman said, “I think you’ve got the wrong number, mister.”
I tell you I don’t like being called Mister, much less in that tone of voice. Determined, I phoned the other Rabinowitz, the one with Rev. in front of his name, and learned to my sorrow that yes, he was a rabbi, and this rabbi had leased the store which was going to be operated by his son-in-law.
“How can you do such a thing,” I said. “You’re a man of God, couldn’t you find a store in a neighborhood that didn’t already have a bagel store?”
The rabbi, who sounded more like a businessman than any rabbi I’d ever met, said, “My son-in-law figured that if a store’s been in business there as long as you have, there must be a lot of customers for bagels in that area. You should take that as a compliment.”
“Compliment?” I said. “My living I make from that store!”
The rabbi tried to quiet me by saying that “Maybe my son-in-law will not have such good bagels and all your customers will remain your customers and he will have to relocate his business somewhere else.”
What kind of a fool did he think I was? I could hear the wink in his voice.
That wink scared me more than anything. As it turned out, I was right to be scared because from the first day that the new store opened, it was crowded with Jews and Gentiles sampling the new bagel-maker’s bagels. I watched from across the street, pretending I was reading The Jewish Daily Forward. Every single person who came out of that store had a bag of bagels in his hand. I was desperate to march up to any one of them and say, “Go ahead, take one bite right here, and tell me if it’s better than the bagels from the Cheskis store.”
They’d think I was crazy. Or they’d recognize me. And if it was a woman, she might call a cop. What should I do? Wait for days on end until I see someone going into that store for the second time, meaning he likes the bagels and has come back for more? It could be he was going in to give them hell because the bagels were lousy!
The week before my wife died once seemed the longest week in my life, but the week after the new bagel store opened seemed to last a year. For the sake of my sanity, I tried to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude. If people still bought my bagels, even if they bought less, I was ready to put the other store out of my mind. I wouldn’t starve. I was not born to be a coward. I can take the not-so-good times along with the good times. After all, I’m a grown-up person for many years.
The very next morning Moishe stops in. He is one of my best customers. Also, he is studying to be a doctor some day, and I’ve always had it in back of my mind that when he gets his M.D. I’d ask him for an endorsement. I mean something like “Dr. Moishe Eisenstein says the Cheskis bagels are not only good for your health but are the tastiest.”
I consider Moishe a young friend, not just a customer, so I say to him, “Have you by any chance, I’m just asking, tried any of the bagels in that new bagel place?”
Moishe turned red.
“I don’t mean to embarrass you. I was only asking because I want to know are their bagels any good?”
“They re good.”
That was not the answer I expected. I expected him to say, “They’re okay, but not as good as yours.”
Then Moishe says, “Mr. Cheskis, you look like you don’t trust me. I’m not a liar, believe me.” And he reaches into the pocket of his raincoat and pulls out a white bag with two bagels in it and says, “Go ahead, break off a piece, taste for yourself.”
That’s what I do. You know something, it wasn’t bad. “I’d say it’s almost as good as mine.”
I expect Moishe to agree with me. He says only one word. “Better.”
I give him one of the looks I was famous for when I was a teenager. Moishe says, “What did you want me to do, lie to you? The guy who’s making those bagels down the street is a genius. You can have egg salad on one of his bagels.”
“Who ever heard of egg salad on a bagel?”
“You should try it. And he has little white tables you can sit down at and eat your egg salad bagel with a cup of coffee right there.”
“The man’s running a restaurant?”
“He’s running a real bagel shop, Cheskis, a modern one, for today.”
That pinched my heart with pliers. So I said, “Then to what high honor do I owe your visit to me?”
“I came to buy some bagels. You sell them, I buy them.”
“I don’t understand,” I say. “You buy some from him and then some from me?”
“That s it.”
“But why, Moishe?”
“The truth is I felt sorry for you.”
The minute he said this I knew that Moishe Eisenstein would never visit my store again. I don’t know what I was thinking about, but when I stopped thinking and looked around, Moishe and his raincoat had disappeared without a good-bye even.
I think that if this young pupik likes the other bagels better, what about the people with real taste? Will they all wind up customers of the competition? I’m not young enough to start all over again in another store in another neighborhood. I built this business here for 26 years! What am I supposed to do, die of old age early?
To my shame, the majority of my old customers, Jew and Gentile alike, stayed away. I even did what I had never done before, I stood out in the street in front of my store to say “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” to them in the hope that my cheerful greeting combined with their guilty conscience would lead them into my establishment. Was I wrong! You’d think I was selling Wonder Bread the way people stayed away from my store.
I am not a man what can be easily defeated. It’s only because the other store is new, I told myself. I will show Rabinowitz. I put a sign in my window that said, “THIS WEEK ONLY, ALL BAGELS HALF PRICE.”
I was just getting the Scotch tape off my hands when already I have a customer in the store. He’s a man I haven’t seen before, a bit older than I am, and dressed in a coat I could have inherited from my grandfather.
“Can I help you?” I say with my best smile.
He says, “I hope so. I haven’t eaten since yesterday. Can you spare a half a dollar?”
I look at him. You were supposed to be a customer.
Then he says, “A dollar?”
“You just asked for half a dollar.”
“You were looking at me kind of funny and I thought maybe I hadn’t asked for enough. After all, how much can you buy today with half a dollar?”
Maybe I’m down but I’m not out. If Rockefeller can give out dimes, I think, I can give out these. And I stuff five bagels into a bag and hand it to the man.
“How about some money for coffee?” He says.
“Please go,” I say. I know the Lord will forgive me for sending this beggar on his way.
Well, I’ll tell you, that day exactly two and a half other people came into my store for the half-price bagels. The half was a boy in long pants with his mother. And you know what he says? He says, “Ma, if they’re half price, maybe they’re stale.”
“I never sell stale merchandise,” I yell at him. “Get out of my store.”
The woman looks at me as if to say I’m crazy. She takes the boy away. I’m perfectly sane. Why do you think I have to go in the back of the store when they leave? Better the apprentice baker should see my watery eyes than they be seen by customers.
After five weeks I had to stop kidding myself. My half-price sale was a flop. Rabbi Hyman Rabinowitz’s son-in-law, may he get gangrene in his testicles, had stolen my business away.
Pretty soon I had to let my helper go. I baked bagels alone. Then the girl who worked the counter on Sunday mornings, I had to let her go, too. She even offered to come in a couple of Sundays without pay just to see if things would turn around, but I am after all a coward who can’t take charity from an employee. With no one to help I still had time to sweep my store at least once an hour. I had been deserted by the world.
In the mirror I told myself, “Pity is for the pitiful. You are a son of Macabees. How dare you give up? Why don’t you find out the secret of the Rabinowitz bagels and change your recipe to make ones like he makes only better! Just thinking those thoughts made my heart go like a hammer. It was time for action.
I decided to put on a disguise and to buy one of the Rabinowitz bagels to find out the secret of his success just as he had uncovered mine by setting up in that neighborhood.
So I put on a hat which I almost never wear, and a pair of sunglasses, locked the door even though it was the middle of the day, and walked toward Rabinowitz’s store not as if I was walking the last mile, but with a proud step. Once inside the despised establishment—the lighting I thought was garish—I took a number. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Little white tables so small that your knees couldn’t help touching the knees of whoever was sitting across from you. And a whole counter display of egg salad, tuna fish salad, cream cheese with vegetables, I’m surprised he didn’t have chocolate to put on the bagels!
I waited patiently until my turn came, at which point I asked for a plain bagel. It was a young girl waiting on me, but the son-in-law interrupted her and said to me, “Why Mr. Cheskis, what an honor to have you visit our premises.”
How did he know who I was? We’d never been introduced. Had he been spying on me? He insisted on not accepting my money for the bagel. I left the store humiliated by my lack of talent for disguise. In the act of being recognized I had been defeated.
When I got back to my store, there were two cats in front of the locked door. These were no ordinary cats. One was an orange cat that stared up at me with the look of an idiot. Another storekeeper told me later that that poor cat had been hit by something, probably a car. There is a lot of traffic on this busy street. Whatever it was that had hit that orange cat had scrambled its brains a bit.
However, what really caught my eye was the other cat, a young gray male with the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen on any animal. This gray cat had the posture of a king, and was licking the older orange cat clean. How considerate, I thought. Yet something seemed wrong. When I went to unlock the door, the gray cat stretched and it was then I learned that it had one shriveled leg. This beautiful creature was a three-legged cat, a cripple! And this cripple was taking care of the brain-damaged cat! And who had abandoned either or both in front of my store during the 15 minutes that I was away? Was this some comedy that God had planned? How could I help telling myself that with the competition having taken away my business, I too was now a cripple and that by some law these two crippled cats had sought each other out and then both of them had come hunting for me. If you think this is a disturbed thought, you ought to hear some of the other thoughts I’m hiding out of shame.
I have no reputation as a cat lover. My daughter had a kitten when my wife was still alive, but when it disappeared I wasn’t exactly unhappy since my daughter Rivka, who was 100 percent a clean person, turned out to be a total failure as a toilet trainer of cats. Some storekeepers who sell food insist on keeping a cat to prevent mice coming out of the walls at night. I plugged every hole with steel wool and never once saw the little black souvenirs mice leave.
When I opened the door, the nifty gray cat stretched itself in royal fashion and went into the store as if I was the doorman. When the brainless orange one finally got the idea, it followed the gray one in. Many times since I have thought that if I had put the cats out and gone home, when I arrived the next morning the cats would probably be gone unless the Almighty Himself had put them there for some purpose. But something superstitious in my nature made me feel that if I ever closed the store during working hours, when I returned I would find the business gone.
In the absence of customers, I spent some time getting acquainted with these two cats. By the end of the afternoon I could honestly say my attitude had changed. Of course the inevitable happened, that’s why it’s called the inevitable. When it was time to go home, I found a wicker basket for the orange cat and holding the basket in my left hand and the gray cat in the cradle of my right arm, I somehow managed to lock the door and to signal a cab that I needed a ride. It is possible that the first cab that saw me also saw the cats. He didn’t have his “Off Duty” sign lit when he passed me by. I didn’t have to wait too long for a second cab, which stopped for me. Would you believe it was being driven by a woman? Even before we got in, she was making all sorts of cat noises to the cats, and I was thinking what a fine way to meet people, through a cat.
The routine of my life changed. Instead of an easygoing morning, I had each day the job of changing the litter box, feeding the cats, which with the orange one was not so easy because it wasn’t even sure of the exact location of its mouth. For several days I left them in the house, but I found myself missing them during the day, especially during the long periods when no one came into the store. So I started taking them to work with me. By this time I couldn’t afford a cab, so I had to carry the orange cat in a basket all the way to the store, twisting my head around every few steps to make sure that the gray one was still following us. I asked a neighbor if I could borrow her extra dog leash for the gray cat. I didn’t want it to get lost. The neighbor said the only cat you can put a leash on was a Siamese cat, and that gray cat was a beauty but certainly no Siamese. What should I know about cats, having come to them so late in life?
I don’t want to give the impression that my business was dead. Once in a while I still had a customer who was loyal and would come for my bagels say every other time, or someone who was just passing by and didn’t even know of the existence of the Rabinowitz store. My best customer was a lady named Mrs. Rachlin, who said to me “Mr. Cheskis, that orange cat is not a well cat. It should go to the ASPCA.”
If I didn’t need her trade as badly as I did, I would have told her to take herself to the ASPCA and get herself gassed. As it turned out, keeping the orange cat indoors in the store provided me with events that were not good for my self control. For instance, I would spread out some newspaper in an old baking tray and put it in the back. The gray cat, a real cooperator, would do in it what it was supposed to do. Fine, I’d put the orange cat in and it would sit there like a dummy for ten minutes and then go out of the tray and piss all over the floor. The last straw was when the orange cat made doo-doo right near the front door and before I could remove it, a customer came in and just opening the door smeared the cat’s present all along the floor. Do you think the customer ordered bagels? She left without a word. So I telephoned my daughter Rivka, whom I liked not to bother now that she was a married woman, and asked her to mind the store and the gray cat just this once while I took the orange cat downtown to the ASPCA, where I pleaded with the young lady to please try to find a home for this disadvantaged creature.
She said she would try. She knew and I knew that she was lying. Dogs they keep. Cats they kill.
I called the ASPCA every day asking if the orange cat had been adopted yet. It got so I dreaded making that call. The young woman, I am sure, dreaded receiving it. But maybe she kept the orange cat alive because of my calls. I even thought of calling up and telling her I was coming to take the orange cat back, though I was still not without hope that customers might somehow come flocking back to my store and I couldn’t take the chance of greeting them with cat-doo at the door. At the same time I knew as a Jew that if the orange cat was gassed, I would carry the guilt of it for the rest of my life.
As it happened—and one who believes in the Almighty does not necessarily think things like this happen by chance—one afternoon the young lady from the ASPCA called me.
“To what do I owe this honor?” I asked, and that was when I learned that a woman had come by who wanted an injured cat to care for and had fallen in love with the orange one and taken it home.
“When, when?” I asked.
“Oh three days ago,” said the young woman. “I didn’t want to tell you till I was sure she wasn’t going to bring it back.”
“But I called. You lied to me.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cheskis. At least we both have a happy ending now.”
She was wrong, of course. For the first time in now 27 years I was unable to meet the rent payment on the bagel store at the beginning of the month. I don’t know what I would have done if the gray cat had not fallen in love with me. I’m serious, did you ever see a cat that would climb into your lap every time you had a lap? I know all about cats that rub up against your leg if they want something, but a cat that puts its face next to yours and licks you? I can swear that that beautiful gray cat even spoke to me, not just meow, but meanings. As my name is Cheskis, I swear that cat understood some words. At least I hope it understood when I put my arms around it and said in a quiet voice, “I love you.” You can blame it on my age, but now it was for that cat that I wanted so much for the business to be a success again.
As luck would have it, by which I mean the Devil because I truly do not believe in luck, my business went downhill for the fifth month. My time had run out. The landlord threatened me with eviction unless I got up-to-date with rent money. I pleaded for a little time, I had an idea. You see I owned my house, the leftover mortgage was not so great any more, and I figured I could get a second mortgage to give me some cash to pay the landlord at the store and to somehow stay in business until God struck down Rabinowitz or his son-in-law. I have to confess to you that during that period I sometimes became so insane with rage inside myself at the Rabinowitz bagel store that I thought of going by some night and pouring gasoline in the entranceway and setting it afire. Even the courage of this conviction I didn’t have.
The bank, which advertises all the time on the radio how easy it is to get a second mortgage from them, when they looked into the business they said they weren’t interested in giving me a loan.
“Look,” I said to the man at the bank, “if I can’t meet the payments, you can sell my house.”
“No,” he said, “it would be up to the holder of the first mortgage to sell the house, and besides that’s not our business, we lend money, we’re not interested in being brokers for real estate, we only take it as collateral from people who are earning a good living and can pay us back month by month.”
After some days I stopped going into the bagel store at all. I didn’t bake bagels, I didn’t sell bagels, I just sat home day after day, talking to the gray beauty and scratching him under his chin, which oh did he like! Now he was fully grown, mature, and my closest friend, I was able to say to him, “We don’t have to worry about the orange one any more. You and I, we are two cats, and if we park ourselves in front of the right store, maybe someone will take us in.”
At those words, the gray cat, I swear, lifted the whiskers on one side of his face, leaped off my lap and went straight to the door, wanting out. I opened the door just a smidgen and he was gone. I mean for two days he didn’t come back. My heart was almost as heavy as when my Sarah died. I understood why in the Bible people rent their clothes. I tore my best jacket in half. It did no good. The walls of the empty house stared back at me, alone in the world, angry at God.
My daughter Rivka came by without telephoning first.
“What a nice surprise,” I said, my voice in mourning.
“You sound terrible, pop,” she said. “And this place needs airing. I’ll open the windows and we’ll go for a walk.”
Walking, she said, “I didn’t see the gray cat.”
When I didn’t answer, she turned and saw me crying. It took several loud blows into a handkerchief to give me back my voice so that I could tell her that my gray cat, like my customers, had left me. Rivka kissed my cheek, right there in front of people, the kind of kiss that is a blessing. Because she is a daughter to make a king proud, I told her everything, the landlord, the bank.
“And what are you planning to do about it?” she said, with her eyes demanding an answer she could be proud of.
I was spared because we both suddenly realized where we had walked to was Adler Street, and we were passing right in front of Rabinowitz’s store. I didn’t want to look. I looked. God be praised, there were only two or three people in the store and nobody was sitting at Rabinowitz’s little white tables. Rivka noticed, too, so I said, “What good is it when my own is empty?”
We could have turned at the next corner like cowards. Like soldiers, we agreed to go forward to the next block, where my store was. I braced myself. I didn’t want to be embarrassed once more in the eyes of my daughter.
In front of the closed door of my bagel store, like a gray guardian, sat my cat.
“My God, my God, my God,” I said, throwing my arms up in the air.
“Mrkneow,” said the gray cat.
I bent down to pick him up.
His growl refused me.
“Maybe he wants to go into the store,” Rivka said, a madwoman’s look in her eye.
“To chase the ghosts?”
“You have the key, pop?”
Rivka wants, who am I to say no? I gave Rivka the key, she unlocked and opened the door. The gray cat bounded in on three legs as fast as a leopard, jumped up on the small table, and sat, its forelegs straight like one of those statues of Egyptian cats surveying its domain.
“We can’t leave him here,” I said.
“Let’s go in,” said Rivka. “I’ll lock the door behind us. We’ll sit and talk.”
Out of this talk came her plan. She threw sentences at me like orders, her wild eyes dancing, just like her mother used to. Knowing my Rivka, she may have had the plan in mind all along, having inherited more brains than her intellectual husband. People liked what was new, she said. She and her Bruce would spend the weekend fixing up the store terrifically while I baked. She’d find a sign painter and rename the place, what? “Better than Best Bagels,” I said, catching her meshugeneh mood by the tail. “Listen, you think I could also have lettering, on a sign, “Under New Management, Two Cats Company,” something like that?”
“Why not? Any why not better somethings on the bagels?”
“Better than what?”
“Better than Rabinowitz of course.”
“You mean sell something more than just bagels?”
“Shrimp salad. You told me Rabinowitz is a Rabbi. He wouldn’t have shrimp salad.”
“The next thing I know you’ll have me putting ham on bagels.”
“It’s ecumenical,” Rivka said. “You want to block progress?”
“You want me to convert, too?”
“Don’t be silly, pop. Besides, you said yourself you had as many Gentile customers as Jewish customers. Let’s get busy cleaning the place up.”
When we opened up again, who knows why the store was so crowded? Rivka was there, even Bruce had taken off from work to help out, I said to her under my breath, “You paid all these people to come in?”
I couldn’t believe it. In two days I had to hire back not only my part-timer but my old baker, too, whose eyes came out of his head when he saw the shrimp and the ham. “Where’d you get the idea of this?” he said.
“From my partner,” I said, pointing at the gray cat, perched on his table, overseeing the surge of customers.
The baker said, “Why does it say under new management? Don’t you still own the place?”
“Sure, sure,” I said impatiently.
“Why does the sign say Two Cats Company? I only see one.”
“It’s too busy to talk. Let’s get to work,” I said.
With the future before me, maybe I should have given him a nicer expression on my face, but how often does a cat smile?