It was a multistage theater with performances in each venue as unique as the performers. Each act had a single booking, because it was impossible to replicate. Cecil B. DeMille’s spectaculars could not compete with the dramas played out daily on the sidewalks of the Jennings Street Market in the Bronx.
The curtain opened to reveal a red-cheeked gnome, tightly wrapped in a white starched apron. Jake the Pickle Man was the despot of this East European bazaar, the undisputed czar of the Jennings Street Market. He had no store; he merely rented a patch on the sidewalk, approximately six by eight feet, from which he, his wife, and five barrels confronted his audience.
Each of three barrels had a different degree of fermentation—from bright green half-sour to olive drab completely sour garlic pickles. A fourth barrel held green tomatoes, and the fifth, shredded cabbage. all undergoing the same process. He coordinated the fermenting flora like a maestro on a podium to produce the most delicious sour pickles, sour tomatoes, and sauerkraut in the Bronx.
The year was 1939; I was nine years old. Going to Jake’s on Friday was as routine as tenants hiding from the landlady on rent day. One day when my mother was next in line waiting to be served, a friend distracted her from across the street. Ma’s slight delay before making her request was unsatisfactory to Jake. His beady eyes glared, and his thin voice shrilled, “Nu, did you come to your big decision?”
Ma was sensitive. She was not willing to be addressed in that aggressive manner. After that exchange, the pickle jar was passed into my hands. Since every mother in the neighborhood bore at least one scar from Jake’s blistering tongue, a queue of their offspring would form alongside his barrels waiting for him to fill their jars and send them off to their Sabbath meal. Inexplicably, Jake loved children. The respect he should have shown to the ladies, he showered on the young ones. He squeezed every pickle he could into their jars.
“Only pickles for Shabbos [the Sabbath] can fit into this jar. Your mother doesn’t have a another one?” He told me to bring a bigger jar next time and sent me on my way.
Ma wasn’t the only patron to nurse the bruises of Jake’s slings and arrows. A woman in front of me announced, “Ah full jar mitt pickles right up to da top. End you should give me a good price.”
“You came mitt an empty jar; you go home mitt an empty jar. No pickles for a chazer [a pig]!”
In another incident, a woman a few places in front of me declared:
“I vahnt sour pickles but dey should be hard vuns. Da lests time you gave me pickles, dey fell apart on mine fork!”
“You vahnt a hard vun? Go esk your husband. Maybe for Shabbos, mitt some mazel [luck], he’ll give you a hard vun.”
At that time I didn’t understand what he was saying but I could tell by the oys, veys, and tsk tsks from the women around me that this was a gem worthy of storage.
It was a very busy day before the Jewish New Year. Jake was besieged by the usual horde at this time of the year. As I was about to leave with my pickles, the woman behind me presented him with a jar that had a very narrow neck.
“Dis is a jar for pickles? Your hahldz [neck] should be as narrow as this jar and you should have a geshvirr [an abscess] in it.”
Most of the women tolerated his insults as the toll paid for his wonderful pickles. Jake’s generous portions were determined by an eyebrow—his wife’s. As soon as it gained altitude and described an arc, he stopped stuffing the jar. Aside from her eyebrow, I could not determine her role in the operation. She never held a jar. Her hands were constantly marinating in sauerkraut juice or among the pickles, turning them down and around like a convection current. When her hands emerged, a sparkling emerald-cut diamond on her ring finger glistened in sharp contrast to the drab brine and pickles surrounding it. This, of course, led to all sorts of rumors about Jake’s wealth. Some women claimed he owned all the real estate on Jennings Street. Others said he earned the money for the diamond from his other enterprises, which were much more profitable. This was ridiculous. The man spent his entire day and a good part of the night tending to the inventory in his oaken barrels.
Late in the evening, behind a wrought iron gate, he could be seen in his laboratory, his backyard. His pink, cherubic Rubenesque face was bathed in the yellow glow of a single low-wattage bulb as he checked his barrels of newly fermenting pickles, tomatoes, and cabbage. He sampled the brine in each barrel, dropped in some bay leaves, or perhaps added dill, salt, or garlic. When he was satisfied, he pulled the string on his lightbulb and went up to his apartment to rehearse his tirade for the following day.
World War II veterans, who benefited from the GI Bill of Rights, abandoned the neighborhood. The suburbs were blossoming as our neighborhood withered. On weekends, the vets made a pilgrimage with their children to the czar—Jake of Jennings Street. They parked their shiny cars along the curb opposite the familiar oaken barrels. Their once leaky jars were replaced by rubber-gasketed Mason jars sealing in the smells and nostalgia of the old neighborhood. I’m sure these vets shared their Jake the Pickle Man stories with their wives and children.
While Jake was spicing the atmosphere with his pickles and verbal lashings, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) in a flapping white but bloody apron shlepped through the streets with a freshly killed chicken, displaying its rear end while directing prospective customers to his stand in one of the many indoor markets. Freshly killed still-warm chickens were waiting to be plucked, eviscerated, and then roasted in the oven.
One indoor market was directly across the street from Jake’s pickle stand. As soon as you entered, your salivary glands began working overtime as the intoxicating aroma from the heartburn-inducing fare at Feuer’s Appetizing overwhelmed your nostrils. Squeezing past his barrels of salted herring, trays of pickled herring, slabs of smoked salmon begging to be sliced, platoons of smoked whitefish, and tubular salamis aligned like artillery shells, you came upon the chicken stand. It consisted of a long white-tiled counter with a cash register at the left end. Prone and limp lay the warm, recently slaughtered, feathered carcasses. A woman at the far right of the counter sat on a wooden milk box. Unaware of carpal tunnel syndrome, she placed her wrists in overdrive as she plucked the feathers from a chicken for 10 cents.
“Good morning. How are you, Mrs. Wolfe? How did you like last week’s farmer cheese? Did you use it in your blintzes? It was a new brand.” Unlike most of the market’s entrepreneurs, whose single corrosive insult could dissolve all the rust on the George Washington Bridge, Mr. Beer, at the dairy counter, was a gentleman with a refined vocabulary. His veined gray marble counter was on the right as you entered the indoor market. Behind his counter were three refrigerated sections enclosed by vertical sliding glass doors. Through the glass, Mr. Beer’s entire inventory was exposed to his customers. Two large wooden tubs filled with bright, golden yellow butter beamed out at the patrons.
“A half-pound of butter, please.”
It always amazed me how he was able to plunge his trowel into the butter and remove a portion of precisely the requested weight.
In front of the wooden tubs were two twelve-inch rectangular wooden boxes holding Breakstone’s cream cheese. Cream cheese then was not available in neatly folded aluminum foil eight-ounce packages. With his trusty trowel, Mr. Beer sliced off the amount requested and then placed it on shiny translucent paper he ripped from a bulky roll at the end of the counter. I thought his deft folding of the paper was a trade secret. As soon as I came home, I tried to duplicate the folds. Somehow, the package never closed.
The third refrigerated section burst with color. A bright gold-toned five-gallon tin can, tipped at an angle like a cornucopia, contained gleaming white pot cheese whose curds seemed to flow out of the can. At either side, a round cheese wrapped tightly in red cellophane prevented the can from rolling sideways. I think Mr. Beer positioned them solely for support and color effect. I never saw anyone buy a wedge of that cheese.
I was familiar only with Mr. Beer’s cream cheese and farmer cheese. The cream cheese was like mortar between two slices of a bagel. For twenty-three consecutive years, my father’s daily bialy roll for work held a square of farmer cheese between its two halves. All the other cheeses in Mr. Beer’s medley were either too expensive or too foreign to test.
Stepping out from Beer’s dairy and to the left, at the corner of Jennings and Wilkins Avenue, resided the market’s trophy fruit and vegetable stand, Miller’s. Possibly Matisse’s brush could have done justice to the yellows, oranges, purples, reds, and greens exploding from various angles. The beautiful fruits were lined up in the morning as if they were awaiting inspection by a general on the company street. Then the customers came, squeezing, examining, fingerprinting, and replacing the fruit in mounds of disarray. An elderly employee rearranged them as he cursed out the women digging for prime fruits. By the end of the day, a few lonely pieces were left in front of the brown paper bags displaying the prices.
To show off the brilliance of the fruit’s colors, Mrs. Miller removed the thin, soft, translucent papers in which some fruit was wrapped. She saved the wrappings in a brown paper bag for my mother, who collected them on Sunday—the day she bought her produce, because the prices were lower. We used these papers as toilet tissue.
At the intersection of Jennings and Charlotte Streets was Ruby’s junk store, a poor man’s Woolworth’s. It was cluttered with merchandise, much of which neither he nor his patrons could identify. Regardless of the season, the odor of camphor permeated the store. If OSHA had existed, it would have condemned his store as unsuitable for human respiration. Ruby’s entire inventory could be found on the floor in open cardboard boxes or scattered on a long wooden table at the center of the store. Nearly every piece of merchandise was buried in a box of sawdust. So, it was potluck when a customer’s hand dove into the shavings prospecting for a bargain. The specialty of the house was mismatched dishes made in Japan. Today, with a genuine pre-war “Made in Japan” stamp on the bottom, these dishes would be collectibles.
Running a close second to the dishes in quantity were sheets of long brown oily camphorated paper. In summer, we lined the clothes closets with this paper to prevent damage to our pathetic woolen garments. A moth with all her faculties would think twice before she deposited her eggs in our clothing. Her larvae, feeding on the fibers, would either expire or suffer from terminal malnutrition.
Shoe polish must have been held in awe by Ruby. This was one of the rare items that perpetually occupied the same area at the left side of his front window for years. After purchasing liquid Shinola and finding its dauber frozen in dehydrated solution, I discovered that Griffin wax shoe polish was the wiser choice. Legislation requiring expiration dates was forty years in the future.
Ruby was a congenial man with a ready smile. Usually, he could be seen walking around the tables with a mysterious object in his hand trying to determine how it could serve his customers.
In later years, Ruby’s merchandise was still in demand—but in demand at the point of a knife or a finger on a trigger. After a few such incidents, Ruby shut the door on his landmark.
Another entrepreneur was my mother’s tomato man, Benson. A thin sheet of plywood, about three by five feet, supported by two milkboxes was the showroom for his merchandise. One section held overripe tomatoes, another ripening green tomatoes, and, at stage center, the crown jewels of his inventory, the firm ripe red tomatoes. Since he was a landsman (someone from my parents’ shtetl), he saved the not-quite-overripe tomatoes for my mother and charged her overripe prices. The difference was only a matter of pennies, but these were years when a penny bought a blank stamped postal card.
A voice that had a Parkinsonian effect on every shopper within range came roaring down the hills and over the moguls of a display of oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and tangerines. It emanated from the resonant vocal cords of Milton, the Pavarotti of Jennings Street Market, performing his aria on a wooden skid, surrounded by nature’s bounty. Its magnetic field drew shoppers like the Piper’s fife drew mice. Further confirmation of his operatic talent came from the fact that hardly anyone knew what he was shouting. Many years later, while he and I were reminiscing about the old neighborhood, my friend Al Lakind, whose dilapidated house was opposite Milton’s stand, decoded his refrain. It was in Yiddish: “Zetz uhp di mimeh!” This can have two entirely different meanings: “Beat up your aunt!” or “Have intercourse with your aunt!” The shoppers had their choice.
Behind Milton and a few stores to his right was a small store that eventually evolved into a supermarket chain. A large green sign with white lettering let the East Bronx know it was Daitch Dairy. Its logo, “The Symbol of Quality,” was painted below a sparkling diamond. Inside, compressed twelve-inch, parchment-wrapped farmer cheeses were stacked like bricks near a scale, waiting to be mortared into a building.
“Get a half-pound farmer cheese, and ask them to cut it from the thick side.”
Inevitably, the piece was three-quarters of a pound.
“It weighs a little more than a half a pound,” the counterman informed me.
“Why doesn’t it ever weigh less than a half a pound?” I asked.
“Could I control the knife? Sometimes it goes this way, sometimes it goes that way.”
I left with the cheese in a white paper bag knowing that Pa would be carrying that white bag to work with his bialy and cheese the next morning.
Across Jennings Street from Miller’s fruit stand and about fifty feet up the street was the neighborhood culinary institute, Meager’s Bakery on Wilkin Avenue. No insults, just the best-tasting rolls, rye bread, cornbread, and onion rolls that ever slid off a wooden paddle from the oven. My relatives would return to Montreal with a canvas sack full of cornbreads, telling each other “Don’t drop them. They might split a tile or brer toe.”
The neatest and most immaculate store in the market was the pork store. A large, ceramic head of a smiling pig dominated the center of the window display. Not a welcome smile to most of the passersby, who kept kosher homes. A heart bypass could have been performed here without the risk of infection. It looked as if Mr. Salerno threw fresh sawdust on the floor every fifteen minutes. All his merchandise was refrigerated in a sparkling glass case. Commercially packed and store-sliced meats were neatly aligned behind one another like rows of dominos. Silence from within came roaring at you when you passed the store. Quite a contrast to Brodsky’s, my mother’s butcher shop. Its proprietor held a seminar with each incision he made on the torso he hauled from the refrigerator. When my mother asked him to remove more fat and gristle from the chuck roast, Brodsky replied, “Mrs. Wolfe, I’m only a butcher; I’m not a surgeon.”
His store was the official source of neighborhood gossip. With his steel sharpening rod, he divined a shidach (marriage match) for a worried mother. Phone numbers were exchanged, and Mr. Brodsky announced news of its progress.
We knew Miller’s fruit and vegetable stand was on the corner of Wilkins Avenue and Jennings Street. We knew Jake was cursing out the women in the middle of Jennings Street. We knew Milton was straining his vocal cords opposite the intersection of Charlotte and Jennings Streets, but where was the Newspaperman? He could be somewhere between two fruit stands or in front of a closed stand in the evening. His newspaper stand consisted of a plywood board suspended over two empty milk boxes. Nervous—or, as my friend the Creep called him, Noiviss—related this Jennings Street story:
On a chilly wintry evening, the fruit and vegetable vendors were blanketing down their inventory with heavy canvas tarpaulins. Jennings Street Market was being put to sleep. There wasn’t a soul in the market but the Newspaperman. Under a rock and flapping in the breeze were the few remainders of the Daily News, Daily Mirror, and Forward.
I left Steinberg’s Bakery with my hands in my pockets and a rye bread under my arm when I noticed the Newspaperman hunched over his stand, his hands in his armpits and a wool hat pulled over his ears.
“It’s an empty street. It’s freezing. The stands are closed. Why don’t you go home?” I said. [This was highly unusual for Nervous, who rarely spoke to anyone he didn’t know.]
“Listen, shitass, don’t give me a weather report,” said the newspaper vendor, while bouncing from one foot to the other. “I’ve been at this long before you were born. Who are you to tell me how to run my business?”
So the Newspaperman was another voice contributing to the congeniality of the Jennings Street Market. Even a casual vendor was sure to sustain the belligerent reputation of the street.
As a precursor to the demise of Jennings Street Market, Jake’s wife passed away. After a period of mourning, Jake returned to his barrels. A few months later, barbarians broke into his apartment. They forced a hand towel down his throat. The czar was dead.
Today pickles can be purchased in sterile glass jars at the supermarket, but will your change be spiced with an insult to make shopping for these poor imitations an event? String beans can be purchased at Balducci’s, where they are called haricots verts, but will Milton’s vocal cords mesmerize the air? A plucked and cleaned free-range chicken can be purchased at Lobel’s Meat Market, but will its feathered rear end be launched into your face for evaluation?
The immigrant families of the Jennings Street neighborhood inculcated their children with a love for learning. As the members of this first generation succeeded, with the help of the GI Bill, they moved to the suburbs. The vacuum created by their departure brought radical change to the neighborhood. The clamor was was silenced by crime. The Jennings Street Theater played to an empty house. The curtains closed, the pageant was over.
Rent paid for the surrounding apartments did not cover the cost for the repair of vandalism. Landlords abandoned the buildings. They were burned. The somber shells of the structures stood like ashen gravestones inscribed with illiterate graffiti in an abandoned cemetery.
In 2004, my friend Alvin and I returned to Jennings Street, looking for the market. A wall two blocks long confronted us—a gray, cinder-block, graffitied wall that resembled the cold, gray Berlin Wall. I saw a man sweeping the sidewalk in front of his butcher shop, the only store that had survived. The chipped facade cornice above his store was a pathetic vestige from the past. I asked him if he had owned the store when this was a bustling market. He had no idea what I was referring to.
Today, the shards of Jennings Street Market lie only in the fading memories of residents who once made it a community.
It is September, 2017. The author is an 87-year-old decorated combat veteran from the Korean War. With the aid of the GI Bill he was graduated from the City College of New York. He has written three books:
Seabury Place: A Bronx Memoir
Cold Ground’s Been My Bed: A Korean War Memoir
Coming Home: A Soldier Returns From Korea