Copyright 2011 David Castlewitz
Working for Jake was the best summer job a 12-year-old boy could have. I’d catch a smoke any time, snatch a beer if I was lucky, and peer down the front of women’s blouses without getting caught. My job was to weigh stuff, take money, make change, and be a generally amiable and witty helper. I thought Jake hired me because I was smart, but, in looking back on that summer of ‘57, I realize he just wanted to get my mom into bed.
Jake the huckster cruised the neighborhoods of North Philadelphia in a pickup truck, a traveling grocery store. At five in the morning, he’d load baskets of tomatoes plucked from a New Jersey vine, wooden crates of oranges shipped north from Florida, apples from the orchards, corn from the fields.
At seven AM, after he picked me up, our first stop was always a taproom that opened early to serve coffee and rolls. While Jake went inside to use the toilet, I put the scale on its hook, fanned the paper bags, and made sure every box and basket had a clearly marked price tag with only the best looking stuff on top.
“Whatcha think?” Jake asked. I sat on the running board and smoked a cigarette. Jake chewed on the stub of a cigar.
“Hancock and Lee,” I said. “We can be there by nine.”
Hancock and Lee, Jasper and “C”, Kant and George: our territory, where we’d catch the housewives in their lairs before they ventured to the stores on Kensington Avenue and Front Street.
Weaving through the neighborhoods, Jake’s red truck was the 1957 version of today’s convenience store, with the emphasis on convenience. The women and their kids would surround us, shouting their orders -– a pound of onions, two pounds of potatoes, a dozen oranges and six big apples –- or sometimes just help themselves and bring their paper bags around to the back, where I manned the scale.
Jake knew all the women by name. He had personal greetings for some, standard repartee for others. I did my best to imitate him. Skinny, dark haired and tanned by the sun, I joked and bantered like my mentor. “Sylvia, your hair is marvelous this morning. Dot, are you having another? Annie, you look terrific. When ya gonna leave that husband and hook up with someone like me?”
When I went too far, Jake would cuff my ear and the women would laugh, their kids would snicker and I’d turn red with shame. On cue, I should add. It was all part of the act. Just like my running ahead of the truck, my hands cupped to my mouth and my squeaky voice spraying the air with, “Hey, Mom, here comes Jake!”
By one in the afternoon we’d have made five or six major stops, the stock would be nearly gone, and Jake would have had a chance to use the toilet at quite a few bars along the way.
He’d come up to me at the back of the truck and I’d lean down into the aromatic cloud of nicotine and whiskey that hovered about his balding head, and he’d say, “Going in there to take a dump. Be a few minutes,” pointing at the rear door to the saloon before melting into the gloomy interior.
Alone, I bagged and weighed, joked and made change, tending to the few customers that came to the truck. Sometimes, the local street gang would notice me at the back of the truck. The leader was always a tall kid with blonde hair, and his minions were always pug-nosed, freckle faced guys, who taunted me by stealing apples — until Jake came roaring outside. Then they’d scatter.
Once, after an apple-stealing episode, Jake laughed it off as usual, got behind the wheel of the truck, and said, “Wanna see your Mom?” I shrugged in reply. “I do,” Jake said, and winked.
So we drove to my neighborhood: across Lehigh and across the cobblestones of Front Street, then down Kensington Avenue, where we rumbled along under the “el”, and on towards Heckert Street and its two story brick row homes which were anchored at the corners by a candy store, a tailor shop, a bar, and a pharmacy. Mom and I lived above the pharmacy, where Heckert met Kensington. Our living room was right over the buzzing neon sign that said, “Karlof’s Drugs.”
Just for fun, I shouted, “Hey, Mom, here comes Jake!” A minute later, she opened the side door. Mr. Karlofski sat on the store’s front steps. A burly man, he looked to be in his mid-sixties; in reality, he was closer to 80. When he drank too much vodka he’d sing in Russian and regale anyone nearby with tales of his life as a peasant soldier in the Czar’s army.
“I don’t want that truck too close to the store,” he shouted. Jake waved and said something in Russian. Jake knew some Polish, some Yiddish, some German — probably some of every language of Europe.
“Is he behaving himself?” Mom asked, and puffed hard on a cigarette. The smoke curled up into the wild waves of brown hair crowning her narrow head. I’d seen photographs of her in high school. She was pretty back then. To men like Jake, I guess she still was. He put an arm around her waist and kissed her. She playfully pushed him away. “You’ve been drinking,” she complained.
Jake sniffed the air around her. “You haven’t?”
“A beer. That’s all I ever drink before supper.”
“Get a job today?” Jake asked.
Mom coughed. “Pay my Arthur enough and I don’t need no job.” She leaned against the truck. “He’s been paying you, hasn’t he?”
Since Mom was fired from Samuels’ Furniture Store after Easter, paying the bills meant scrounging for change, begging my grandparents, and taking on odd jobs.
“Hey, stupid,” Mom said to me. “Ya got an answer or what? He paying you?”
“I’m paying him,” Jake cut in. He nuzzled her playfully and whispered into her ear.
“How much?” Mom demanded. “How much you pay him?”
Jake gave me fifteen dollars a day, whether we worked 5 hours, 8 or 12. That was more than a dollar an hour. For a kid my age, that was twice the going rate. So I showed Mom eight bucks and held back seven.
“Jake says he gives you a buck an hour. You little bastard!” Her hand flashed across my face. I faked being hurt, fell to my knees and began to cry. Mom never kicked me. She liked to stand over me with a strap and wallop me across the shoulders, but she never kicked.
“Sorry,” Jake said as we waited at a stop light the next morning.
“Just don’t tell her anymore. Okay? Don’t tell her what you pay me. That should be between you and me.”
“Whatcha doin’ with the money?”
“Ya gotta help your mom pay the bills.”
“I give her some. Just not all.”
“Hungry?” Jake asked. I nodded and he parked the car at a corner, pulling up close to the vehicle in front so the truck’s rear didn’t extend into the intersection. “I’ll get you a sandwich,” he said, and stepped down from the cab.
“Hey, fatso,” someone yelled from the sidewalk. “You better move that truck.”
“Just getting a sandwich for the kid,” Jake replied, pointing a thumb back at me.
“Didn’t you hear me? I said, move the truck.”
I peered out the window at a huge guy with a square face and round shoulders. Striped suit. Polished black shoes. Jake looked at the limo pulling up.
“Okay, okay,” Jake said, hands up in either protest or surrender. “I didn’t see Mr. Zardecki coming.”
“You blind? Whatcha think I’m doing here?” He shoved Jake backwards. The cigar flew out of his mouth when Mr. Suit hit him in the stomach.
I jumped out of the truck. “Hey, leave him alone!” I ran for Jake and tried to protect him. Suit Guy snorted at me.
“Back in the truck, Artie,” Jake said. “I’m moving. Okay? I’m moving the truck.” Jake guided me past Suit Guy.
“Don’t ever get out of the truck when something like that happens,” Jake said.
“I wanted to help you.”
We drove across Lehigh Avenue, across the railroad tracks, drove in silence. Jake parked outside a bar we hadn’t visited before.
“Wait here,” Jake told me in a shaky voice. As instructed, I waited, hoping he’d come back with a sandwich for me. I was famished.
Minutes passed. Then an hour. I dozed, my feet on the dash. When I woke, a full two hours had elapsed and I went looking for Jake.
“Hey, anybody belong to that kid over there?” someone asked as I stood just inside the beer-scented saloon. My eyes slowly acclimated to the gloom. Men in work shirts and overalls crowded the bar, straddling stools, shot glasses in one hand, short glasses of beer at the ready. The bartender, a towering scarecrow with red hair and a stained white apron, glared at me.
“Whatcha want, kid?” he rasped.
More voices assaulted me. “You ain’t from this neighborhood. No kids in here. Get out.”
“I’m lookin’ for someone,” I said. “A guy named Jake.”
“He that the fat guy what came in?” someone suggested.
In the back, at the only tables in the room, sat three middle-aged women; one scooted around on her chair.
“The kid’s probably looking for his dad,” she said, and came lumbering towards me, the brace on her leg giving her gait a thumping sound. “Over here,” she said, and squeezed my shoulder as she steered me towards the toilets.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, and tapped lightly on the door to the men’s room.
“You done your good deed, Claire. Throw the fish back. He ain’t big enough for ya anyway.”
The women laughed.
“Jake,” I called.
“It’s been two hours.” I listened to clothes rustling, heard a flush. A red-faced Jake emerged.
We walked outside. “You left the truck unlocked?” he asked. “That’s really stupid. They could run off with it. I ain’t got time for stupid kids right now. I’m taking you home.”
It was a long drive, with sudden stops at traffic lights, warning horns blaring when Jake veered from his lane. Once home, Jake parked with the front wheel on the sidewalk. Mr. Karlofski came out and yelled, but Jake ignored him, didn’t even reply with some Russian catch-phrase. Instead, he leaned on my apartment doorbell until Mom rushed down the steps.
“What’s the matter?” she screamed, yanking the door open. Jake fell into her and she let him sag to the floor. “Are you drunk? You been driving with my kid, drunk like that? Didn’t I tell you, don’t drive drunk with him?”
Mom was wearing a red raincoat and nothing else. I smelled soap, saw rings of suds in her curly air.
Mom slapped me. “Get in the house,” she said.
“Leave the kid alone,” Jake slurred.
“He knows better than to go riding around with a drunk.”
I ran upstairs, but stopped to watch what Mom did next. She pushed on Jake, tried to move him outside. He got to his feet, wrestled with her, and pulled at her raincoat. She hit him and he staggered backwards. She shut the door. Then came after me.
“I don’t want you ever, ever, ever driving with that drunk again,” she screamed, punctuating ever with a strap, catching me across one shoulder, then the other, then the backs of my legs, chasing me around the living room, she half naked with her coat flying open, me holding my hands over my eyes to keep from being blinded by the belt.
The buzzer woke me. I rolled over and fell to the floor. I’d fallen asleep without changing the sofa into a bed. I put on my slippers. Broken glass scrunched under my feet as I gingerly made my way to the door. My shoulders burned. Walking was painful, but I went downstairs to answer the door.
“Jake?” I said, surprised.
“I’m sober. Don’t worry.”
“Mom doesn’t want me going to work with you no more.”
“Bernice?” Jake pushed past me and lumbered upstairs. He frowned at the broken glass on the carpet. Brown glass. Beer bottles. Mom had slammed a few empties against the wall.
I stood behind Jake. He turned to me and spun me around and lifted the back of my shirt. Then he rushed to Mom’s room.
Her door opened. “Got a cigarette?” Mom asked. She pulled her thin robe tight around her body and slipped past Jake. She found her pack of Chesterfields on the kitchen table. Most were ruined by a beer spill. But she found a dry one and lit it at the stove, holding back the fluffy collar of her robe to keep it from falling into the flame.
“Whatcha want, Jake?” she asked, pulling out a padded metal chair.
“I came to check on the kid.”
“He ain’t going with you. You think I want him killed with you driving drunk all the time.”
“It ain’t all the time.”
“You tell me I’m a drunk, and everything else, then you go drink and drive him all over the city?”
Jake sat opposite Mom. His rough hands reached across the table to touch hers. “You can’t treat Artie like that,” he said.
“How else am I supposed to protect him? He ain’t got enough sense to know no better. I gotta protect him. He’s all I got.”
Mom stubbed out her cigarette and put her hands out to me. I wanted to resist, but I knew the consequences. So I rushed into her embrace. She pressed my face against her chest and hugged me and rubbed my sore shoulders. “My poor boy,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
“You gotta stop,” Jake said. “For your sake as well as the boy’s. Stop drinking.” Jake came around to her side. She leaned towards him and they kissed, their mouths tight against each other, her nails digging into his bare upper arms, leaving red marks on his flabby skin.
“I’ll try,” she said as they parted. “But you can’t drink when you’re working.”
“I don’t. Just that once. Yesterday.”
I heard the lie, but knew to keep quiet.
“Look, we have to go to work, me and the kid. Okay?” Jake kissed Mom on the forehead. “You should clean up the house.”
“Will you take me to a movie tonight?” she asked, sounding like a child making a request of her dad.
“All three of us!” Jake said.
I liked that. “We can see ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai’,” I offered.
“Sure. Tonight.” Jake turned to me. “Ready? Lots of work to do today.”
“I can go?” I asked Mom. “Go with Jake?”
She nodded. Frowning, she lifted the soggy pack of cigarettes and shook her head. “I ain’t even got no smokes left.”
“Here, Mom,” I said, retrieving my Luckies from under the sofa cushion. I gave her some.
“Oh, Artie,” she said with a wheeze and a tiny cry. “My little boy is growing up. Going off to work and growing up right before my eyes.”
Growing up. With the best job ever. The kind that got me out of the house.
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