Revocable Trusts, Amortization of Capital Expenditures, and Ancillary Depreciation as Rin-Tin-Tin had in the sunspot theory of economic cycles. Most of the country, however, was trying to keep its nose above the rising flood of Herbert Hoover’s depression. I had been fortunate enough to land this job with a firm of certified public accountants, and I did not want to be fired.
To put it bluntly, my enrollment in the La Salle Extension University Course in Higher Accountancy was an activity that would have been described a decade later—after the Japs dumped the Sixth Avenue El back on us at Hickam Field and I began to rub elbows with the vocabulary of the U.S. Army—as brown-nosing.
I did not want my boss Ira Bern (the “Co.” of M.S.&.Co.) to think I felt about accountancy the way my mother felt about suckling pig. I wanted him to feel I sat at his feet. It would not be straining accuracy to say I did.
One of my daily tasks as an employee of M.S.&Co. was to take Mr. Bern’s shoes every morning at ten o’clock to the bootblack in the lobby of our office building. It sounds demeaning, of course, and there may be some who think it was. I did not. Mr. Bern was a generous and an expansive man. Every morning when he took off his shoes and handed them to me, he also handed me a dime.
“While you’re waiting,” he used to say, “get yourself a cuppa cawfee and a ruggle.”
A cuppa cawfee was—well, I guess it still is—a cuppa cawfee. A ruggle, however. Now then.
A ruggle in 1930 was and may very well still be a piece of pastry called Danish, probably with good reason, although so far as I knew it was invented by Jews in places like Poland. It was steeped in cinnamon, studded with raisins, chewy as taffy, shaped like a crescent, and pleasurable beyond the erotic vocabulary in the Song of Solomon.
While Mr. Bern’s shoes were being shined, I would sit at Mr. Rothman’s brown marble counter in the section of the office building lobby then known as a coffee pot, and I would dunk.
A nickel ruggle in 1930 had in it eight dunks. Once in a while, as an experiment in the extension of delight, I did manage to stretch this to nine. I am certain others have made the same experiment, but my life has not provided me with opportunities to compare these experiments. Speaking for myself, from my own personal experience, I can say unequivocally the experiment did not pay off.
Shortly after the eighth dunk, Mr. Bern’s shoes always looked like the mirrors in the penny peanut machines on the IRT subway platforms. I do not exaggerate. You could see yourself, you actually could, in the gleaming mirror-like pieces of leather across the toes.
Mr. Bern had been a poor boy. A Fifth Streeter, actually. Born and raised one block up from my own native land: East Fourth Street. He had made it, as Fifth Streeters tended to do, and as a result he had certain peccadilloes. Shoes, for example. He couldn’t stand brown. Black was Ira Bern’s color, and a custom bootmaker on 48th made the shoes for him at $55 a pair—1930, remember—out of sheets of vici kid imported from Spain.
I did not then know what vici kid was. I still don’t know. I am certain it would be easy enough to find out. A phone call to The New York Times would do it. Or could do it in the days when the paper sold for two cents, and on that they could afford to maintain a twenty-four-hour-a-day free information telephone service. Even if they still do, I would not make that call.
Vici kid to me is the black leather at which the Italian boy in the bootblack shop at 224 West 34th Street pummeled away every morning from 10:00 to 10:15 while I dunked a Rothman’s ruggle into a cuppa Rothman’s cawfee. I’ll settle for that.
The good moments of life, I have learned, are always memories. I have never known better ones. I will stick with what I’ve got.
What I’ve got next adds up to a somewhat breathless period. Five minutes, perhaps. Somewhere between 10:15 and 10:30
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