I Sold Shoes
I grew up in Utica, New York. I was born in 1896. My father was born in old Russia, so was my mother. I lived next door to the rabbi of our town, his daughter was a nice kid. I got along very well with the rabbi even though I wasn’t much interested in religion. I was a musician.
Both my brother and I played the cornet. Every town of moderate size in upstate New York had a vaudeville house, a theater, where there were live shows. When we were in our teens, maybe thirteen years old, fourteen years old, about 1910, we used to love to go to the local vaudeville house. Because we were musicians, we met an older man who had a vaudeville act. He toured under the name The Professor. He asked my parents if my brother and I could join his act. They agreed. It meant touring the upstate New York vaudeville circuit. We played every town up and down the railroad line that had a theater. For the rest of my life, I could holler out the stops on the Mohawk Valley Railroad line, we rode that railroad so often.
So at the age of fourteen, myself and my brother were performing with The Professor in vaudeville. The Professor dressed us up in suits that looked like fancy military school uniforms. I have pictures of us with the Professor. The Professor took good care of us, watched over us like an uncle, and taught us about music and show business.
After playing with the Professor for a few years, I played with a band called Holroyd’s Utica Municipal Band, and later I started my own band, called Art Stone’s Rhythm Kings. We also played the vaudeville houses. Most of the music we played was ethnic music, which means there were Negro spirituals that we performed in black face, Irish songs about the Irish immigrants, Jewish songs, etc. Here are a few verses of the kinds of songs we sang:
Bill McCoy was a musical boy,
On the steamer Alabama you could hear him at the piano
Like a ship out on the sea,
With that syncopated melody,
Every night upon the ocean we would get that ragged notion
Play that syncopated melody,
No one could sleep way down in the deep
When Billy let loose and he played.
Here’s another one:
At the wedding
At the wedding
It was great
Up to date
Nobody cared how much you ate
The band played those great opera swells
‘Twas nothing to tell who was William to hell
And turkey trottin’ it was nottin’
Everybody was there who you wanted to see
Becky’s father gave the groom a ‘tousand dollar check
And Jakie was so happy he kissed him on the neck
Last night at the Yiddische wedding jubilee.
Most Americans in those days were close to their ethnics roots, and most of our songs were these playful stereotypes. We toured all the time.
The story I always tell is that I grew up next to the rabbi. He had a cute daughter; when I went away she was a girl, when I returned she was a woman. Her father liked me and there was no problem asking his permission to marry his daughter. My grandson in years to come will make a big deal about the house of vaudeville and the house of the rabbi joining so effortlessly. This will be a problem for him, but it was not a problem for me.
Somebody in the family had moved to Detroit and I followed to go into business. I went into the schmata business; I sold men’s clothes. I had my own store on Detroit’s East side, which was not where most of the Jewish people in Detroit lived. I kept that store for a long time but had to give it up when the neighborhood became dangerous and I was held up one too many times.
I went to work selling shoes in a large men’s store in the Detroit suburbs. I was way past what was usually considered retirement age, but I gave people something that they don’t get everywhere: service. I knew my customers. I was the last of that world of personal service I suppose. I never wanted to retire, and I didn’t. I died driving home from work.
After I died, someone put out a small pushke on the counter of the shoe department where I worked. They collected so much money they didn’t know what to do with it. People who hardly knew me mourned me like family. I left a large space behind me. People loved me. I am told that it was my presence as the patriarch in the family that single-handedly held the family together. After I died, the whole family began to unravel.
It’s all about relationship, love, friendship, family, the secret arts for which I lived and have become devalued. That’s how I lived, how I did business, how I lived my life. My grandson said, Something has passed from the world with the passing of characters like me.
I lived a good life. I was a happy man, but I am sad to see what has happened in my absence. Something missing, something central, something important.
Maybe this is the draw of the tzaddik notion for my grandson, the sense that there are people in the world who somehow authenticate a generation. What do they do? Not much, really. They are agents for something that is not present to be present, or something that is stuck or hidden to be released and rise. Maybe the civilizing forces, like love, decency, friendship, sensitivity, connection, community, care for each other, something like this.
What did I do in my life? Not much. I sold shoes. I loved selling shoes because I loved being of service to human beings. I knew their names. I knew their families.
I loved my family. I cared for my friends. I served people well. I made service a high art. Who would imagine that serving someone could be so significant?
I sold shoes. I inspired something in the people who knew me that they valued, maybe valued more than anything else, because it was becoming more and more rare.
To be my customer was a sacred relation. I guess that doesn’t happen much anymore but that’s not only how we made a living, that’s how we lived.
I was born on July 4th by the way, and that meant a lot to me. Many people of my generation were born on July 4th, whether they were or not, because we remembered where our people came from and we never forgot our gratitude for the land where we arrived.
The Next World