One of the greatest thrills of my youth was going to work with Dad. He was a stern disciplinarian at home with a survivors approach to family but he was a very different man at work. I learned that the first time he took me along.
I was probably no more than six or seven at the time but he allowed me to play in his office with his big adding machine and glue and swatches of fabric and marking paper and marking chalk. I remember making some sort of a major mess, which, had I made at home, he would have been unhappy about and insistent that I clean it up, but in his office, he said not a single word. If he had any anger at work he took it out on the truckers who were late with the deliveries.
At work he was never upset with me. He was strong and fast, always moving. He juggled those 100-pound bolts of material over his shoulder as if they were just a couple of bananas. He was in constant motion making patterns, grading, marking, and working with the models and the sample makers.
The day at Dad’s work in the City was always made super special by the Automat lunch where Dad would give me the coin and tell me to make sure I only chose the tuna fish; we could not have any non-kosher cheese or meat meals. I once brought my own nickel to pay for lunch but Dad insisted that I save my coins. In the City, his friends called him Milt, a new name to my ears. At home, he was Moishe. He wore both hats with grace, elegance, and class.
Perhaps the biggest thrill was seeing him being so alive in this “shmata industry” world that he had come to conquer. I knew his story of survival. He told us about it every year at the Passover Seder. He and his family were taken to a ghetto and then to Auschwitz the day after Passover. He was later liberated from a locked cattle car just a few days after Passover. He survived the train because he saved the bread that he would not eat on Passover in his pocket. Those few morsels sustained him and his brother. He always spoke of his own Exodus at Passover time and how he came to the US with his two surviving brothers and how, through the good graces of some relatives and other charitable individuals, they got jobs in the needle industry.
To me it looked like he knew almost everyone in the shmata line and they all knew Milt. When he was in that element he would walk so fast that I could never keep up. He would hold my hand and say, “Better hang on tight and move fast. Watch out, we don’t want to be knocked over by a delivery guy.” I thought he could move even faster than my favorite comic book character, The Flash. Even as I got older and was 10 or 12, I always felt that I was dragging behind as he would weave through the subway tunnels and the caverns and the maze made by the moving hoards of people around Broadway at 36th Street. In my mind, I would never be able to keep up with him. The one time I recall telling him to slow down he laughed and said “OK but we don’t want to be late for work.”
When I entered my teens I would spend days off with friends, not in the garment district with Dad. That was fine with him. He really did not want us there. His sternest threat to my brother and I was “If you don’t do well in school I can get you a job schlepping in the industry.” The threat worked. We both did well academically along with our friends and moved far from dresses, aprons, and sportswear. At one point, his warnings to us seemed prophetic. The “industry” as it was no longer exists in the US. His admonitions guided us well. We never looked down at him for his work in the shmata trade and still marveled at times at how rapidly he could sprint to make the train to work.
Times have changed. Dad is older now. He retired some years ago and is a snowbird, six months in Florida and six months up north. Since Mom’s passing, he has been spending weekends with us when he is in New York. He now walks with a walker. He is not happy about it. I understand why. I could never keep up with this man. This is the man who ran for the LIRR and always made it. I walk with him to and from shul on Saturdays. If I am not careful, I find that I am still not keeping up with his pace – I have left him behind. I have to remember that he told me to hold on to him when I was the slow walker.
One afternoon I took him to the grocery to help him shop for the staples he needs for his apartment. Afterward, he suggested we get a bagel for lunch. We ordered and I took out my wallet to pay. As always in the past he was the fastest. He paid for lunch.