The Greenhorn

SHORT STORY by Arnold Charitan

Measured by the standards of that time, he was a large man. 5'10", muscular, strong as an ox, broad shoulders, no visible body fat. All 36 teeth were his and he never visited a dentist nor had a toothache. He was macho. A man's man. You sucked it up, you saw it through, you never quit, you never gave up. He had this Prussian physical and emotional make-up. Any display of sensitivity or caring was a sign of weakness. Definitely, you never cried.

You knew he cared, because he was there-for-you. He was your rock, your stability and your reality. The center of the universe. A butcher by trade, he would leave for work before dawn 6 days a week. Would return at about 4 P.M., prepare dinner for three children and himself. Do dishes, minimal housework, bathe the three children, and go to bed about 8 P.M.. This routine lasted for many years. The three children made it to school and back on their own. The school system provided for lunch. He spoke English (self-taught) with an accent. He learned to read and write, the same way. His bad spelling can be attributed directly to an attempt to spell English (phonetically). Can you believe it? This man had a violent temper. But amazingly accepted scorn and ridicule related to his immigrant status. He solemnly believed in his newly adopted country. He loved America for the opportunity it gave him. He envied Americans for their laissez-faire attitude toward individual rights and personal freedom. He would tell me, "They were born that way, how lucky."

This man possessed "old world" manners and values. He could easily be provoked seeing a bully at work, or if he sensed an injustice being heaped upon a chlld or a female. Because of his physical appearance, it was usually sufficient to rebuke the offender, without a demonstration of his physical prowess. He was a man of few words. Quiet! Close your eyes, think of the "strongman", in-the-circus of many years ago. Teutonic, blue-green eyes. Now, you got it.

He arrived shortly after World War 1, passed through Ellis Island and never ventured beyond New York. He found employment in his trade on the Lower East Side. He was industrious, hard working. This dedication-to-duty earned him respect and continuous employment. In 1924, at age 32, he asked a Russian immigrant farmer in Westchester County for the hand of his eldest daughter in marriage. She was an attractive 16 year old high school student. Jacob (now Jack's) old world charm and values (treating her in a Madonna-like fashion) won her over. They were married and had their first child (a boy) in 1925. The marriage was soon headed for disaster. The American born and bred teenager. and the old world, patriarchal middle-aged meat cutter had different interests, concerns, and more importantly, values. Two other sons were born into this rocky union. I understand there were many men "interests" and intermittent reunions between the two before the final split. A court awarded the three boys into the custody of the father. The court ruled the mother to be "unfit" and a divorce was granted.

I cannot, nor will I ever forget the pain in his heart. The translucent pain showing in his eyes when his beautiful young wide didn't come home. Oh how he suffered in silence. I cannot forget the times he went out looking for her. Dejectedly, without a word he would return alone to resume the duties of caring for three small children. The only time I ever heard him make mention of her, he referred to her as "the whore".

For the first seven or eight years of my life, we lived with varied housekeepers, or in foster homes, occasionally with family, and finally the orphanage. I can't begin to count the number of changes. Between Kindergarten and 2nd grade, I'll bet I was enrolled in no less than a half dozen schools.

My father, Jack the butcher, in a loveless arranged marriage, with the aid of a marriage broker, remarried. At age 11, we left the orphanage and moved into an apartment on Arthur Avenue, in the Bronx. Her name was Rose. Our relationship with Rose was not one of loving or even caring, just going through the motions, as everyone recognized their personal duty and responsibility, to the whole.

We were living at 312 E.168th St. My older brother at age 15 left home. He was nowhere to be found. Later that evening we received a telegram. The telegram read that "Sonny" had decided to move up to Bedford Hills and live with our birth mother's family. We didn't even know they were in touch. The news broke my fathers heart. Ashen faced and tight-lipped he handed me the telegram. I hated Sonny for what he did to our father.In the "old world" the eldest son not only inherited, but was entrusted with the care of the family. My father felt betrayed. His world was being torn apart for the 2nd time. Sonny's leaving was not mentioned again and superficially, at least, was accepted as a fait accompli. My father, Rose the stepmother. my younger brother and I returned to our daily routine.

Jack wasn't just-a-butcher. he ventured on repeated occasions into various entrepreneurial pursuits, with minimal positive results. He tried everything (within the meat business). It wasn't until World War II that he became successful. He did it in the "Black Market". He had meat for sale in spite of shortages. He opened a slaughterhouse and paid of the officials. The business grew beyond his wildest expectations and he prospered, handsomely. My Dad invested much of his ill-gotten gains in sub-standard housing, primarily in the Yonkers area, around the carpet mills. They were called "cold-water flats".

It was 1945, the war was over, the servicemen returning and the economy no longer in high gear. The carpet mills cut-back, laying off workers and the investments gradually declined. His "Midas" touch dissipated with the economic good times. Dad's financial well-being returned to pre-war status. Which is to say, whatever he could earn as a butcher. Now well past his prime, approaching age 60, he was no longer a force to be reckoned with. He did what he could.

In retrospect, I can recall an incident when Jack the butcher was in his prime. In the slaughterhouse, one day, while "skinning" a sheep (which was hanging by its hind legs), the knife slipped and plunged about 4 to 6 inched into his thigh (right leg). He pulled it out, mumbled a few curse words in the several languages he spoke, wiped away the blood, poured iodine over the wound, taped a flat gauze over it, and returned to work. The other butchers, helpers, etc. looked on in amazement. He finished work that evening, limping noticeably. He didn't see a doctor about it, either. As I said, his way was to bear it.

Sunday was his only day off. No vacations, I mean NEVER. This man never had a vacation. Sundays were marvelous days. Jack the butcher either made rice pudding and/or took us for a ride in the car. In my memory, those days bring joy and a smile to my lips.

In winter 1964, Jack the Butcher died. He was 74 years old. An old 74, the years of hard work had taken its toll. He died, seated in his parked car, of a heart attack, but he was working that day.