Commentary Magazine


Dubinsky on the Loose

Manny Dubinsky had been 50 years in the scrap-metal business, a buyer, before he retired at the age of seventy-five. Why scrap? Because when he got out of the Army, the better part of which he spent as an orderly-room sergeant in Guam, he had been offered a job at H.J. Kramer Metals, Inc., owned by his mother’s brother Henry. Going to law school would have meant another three years before he could marry Grace, and after the four years they had already waited for the war to end, that was precisely three years too long. Dubinsky went into scrap metal because he wanted to marry without further delay, and so well had the marriage turned out that he never, not for a minute, seriously regretted it.

When his Uncle Henry’s two sons and their brother-in-law Herb Harris took over the major positions in the business, friends said to him, “Manny, why don’t you go in for yourself?” “I’d be glad to,” was his answer, “as soon as you can arrange the $3 million for my first crushing machine.” It was big business, scrap metal, not for little guys; and, though Manny Dubinsky always made a good living—and some years a damn good living—when it came to million-dollar machinery he had to count himself a little guy.

Everybody loved Grace. And why not? She was an extraordinary woman. Dubinsky never tired of telling people that his wife had majored in physics at the University of Illinois—and this was in 1937, when she was the only female in the department. She was, also in his phrase, the “playmaker” of their social life. Somehow or other, at home or on one of their vacation cruises, she found couples who were perfectly simpatico. Until Ruthie went off to college—she was their only child after a tricky first, and last, pregnancy—Grace remained at home, devoting herself to her family. When she returned to work she became a science editor at a Chicago textbook firm, turning the opaque writing of physicists and chemists into readable English. But even with her full-time job Dubinsky never felt any lessening of her wifely ministrations. He couldn’t remember a bad meal; where clean shirts came from was knowledge kept from him; and never once did he pack his own suitcase for his many buying trips.

There was no one, it seemed, that Grace couldn’t get along with, including the Bermans. Art Berman, an insurance man, was Ruthie’s father-in-law, and as confidently boring a man as Dubinsky had ever met. Estelle was a female bully, only happy when she got her way no matter how trivial the point in contention, and with Estelle everything was in contention. As for their son Larry, a personal-injury lawyer who managed to strike a note of insufferable knowingness in everything he said, Dubinsky tried not to be around him any more than was absolutely necessary.

Shortly before the wedding, the Dubinskys had gone out with their friends Harry and Anne Ellmann, and Anne asked him how he felt about his much-loved daughter’s match. “I’ll tell you how I feel,” Dubinsky heard himself reply, “I feel like I’m about to hand over a Stradivarius to a gorilla.” Grace kicked him gently under the table. “We have to live with these terrible people, Manny,” she said in the car on the way home. “It won’t do to knock them, even to our dearest friends.” That was Grace.

Dubinsky’s 75th birthday nearly coincided with his 50th anniversary at Kramer Metals. Herb Harris, now president of the firm, had let him work past normal retirement age, and, although he was still carrying his share of the load, even Dubinsky knew the time had come to hang it up. A lunch was given in his honor at the Standard Club. The place had once been strictly for German Jews, and his Uncle Henry, like every other successful East European Jew, had had to settle for the old Covenant Club on Clark and Madison. But through what Grace once called “mixed marriages” with their coreligionists from Eastern Europe, the ranks of German Jews in Chicago had so thinned out that the Standard now took in anyone able to ante up the hefty entry fee.

At the lunch, with all the officers and buyers present, Herb Harris spoke of Manny Dubinsky’s long service. Everywhere, he said, the mutual pact of loyalty between business institutions and the people who worked for them was breaking down; but not yet at Kramer Metals. Thanking Dubinsky for his efforts on the firm’s behalf, he presented him with a Rolex watch and a check for $20,000, which, he said, he hoped Manny would use to take his wife on a first-class vacation to Europe.

Dubinsky was much moved. Driving home to Evanston, he felt his years had not been wasted. He remembered Herbie Harris as a kid, coming into the firm in the early 1960’s. He’d led it through some pretty rocky patches, and turned out to be not only a clear-headed businessman but a mentsh. Dubinsky glanced at the large new watch on his wrist, felt the check resting in his suit-coat pocket. Grace, he thought, would be pleased. Maybe they would take that trip.

Parking the Buick in the garage of his apartment building, Dubinsky let himself in the door and called his wife’s name. No answer. He called again. She must be out. He went into the kitchen to get a glass of ice water and found the refrigerator door open, Grace, face down, on the floor. He knelt to feel her forehead. Cold. He called 911, and while waiting for the ambulance, gave his wife his best shot at artificial respiration. Sitting on the floor, he rocked her in his arms, chanting “No, God, no, please God, no.” He had no recollection of it, but later he was told that the paramedics had to pry him loose from her. The cause of death was massive cerebral hemorrhage; the time was fixed at an hour before Dubinsky arrived home. On one and the same day he lost his work and his truest friend.

_____________

 

Now, three years later, Dubinsky had yet to recover from the combined blow.

Much sooner than that, he realized he was helpless when it came to operating the washers and dryers in the basement. Although he thought he knew how to cook an egg, one day he put in six to boil and went out briefly on an errand. He returned home to a terrible smell, egg on the kitchen ceiling and wall behind the stove, and a burned-out pot. Apart from breakfast, he tried eating all his meals out, but discovered he was unbearably self-conscious sitting alone in a restaurant. He began bringing dinners back from the Pine Yard, the nearby Chinese restaurant.

At Grace’s funeral service—it was at Piser’s in Skokie—there had been a huge turnout, but going over the names of people who had signed the book, Dubinsky saw that the vast majority were his wife’s friends, not his. After her death he was occasionally invited to dinner by the Ellmanns or other couples he and Grace used to see together. But before long the invitations, not all that many to begin with, had dropped off. Grace, not Manny, had been the real draw of the Dubinskys.

A month or so after the funeral, Dubinsky began to notice something else: he was developing a tendency, quite new to him, to tell people off. One day in the Golden Parthenon, a local greasy spoon—a Grecian spoon, Grace had called it—the waitress brought his check along with lunch and he barked out in a voice he didn’t quite recognize, “What the hell’s the rush act here? You can’t give me the check after my coffee? Maybe you’d prefer I eat in the goddamn car?” In the express line of the supermarket, to the young check-out girl with a diamond chip in her nose and an earring on her lip he snarled, “What’s all this extra jewelry about? You want to make sure you don’t get ahead in life?” In line at the bank, he advised the man ahead of him, who looked to be his own age and who had white hair pulled back in a small ponytail, “Excuse me, pal, are you aware that your hairdo makes you look like a complete schmuck?” As if avoiding a lunatic, the man turned away.

The worst came one evening at his daughter’s in Highland Park. Since Grace’s death, Dubinsky had a standing invitation to Friday-night dinner, which gave him a chance to see his grandchildren Tyler and Justin, both now in high school. An only child himself, Dubinsky hadn’t any other family. His sister-in-law Sylvia had died a year before Grace, and Grace’s brother Bernie was in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s in Boca Raton. Ruthie and the children were all he had.

Dinner that Friday went reasonably well. Ruthie cooked a brisket, her mother’s recipe, and they were eating their dessert, flourless chocolate cake with raspberries. The boys had already gone off. Dubinsky’s mistake was to ask his son-in-law how he liked the Bulls’ chances in the Eastern-division finals against the Knicks. The series was in its fifth game.

“Bulls in seven,” Larry said. “You have to know that, Manny. Too much money is at stake—ticket sales, television revenues, concessions—not to make sure it goes the full seven games.”

“I would have thought,” Dubinsky answered, “that too much was at stake even to consider fixing a pro basketball game.”

“Manny, c’mon, you’ve been around. With the right people at the controls, there isn’t anything can’t be fixed. You know it and I know it.”

“I don’t know anything of the kind,” Dubinsky said.

“Well,” his son-in-law put in, “maybe you should.”

“You telling me I’m naive?” Dubinsky asked. “Is that what you’re telling me? Where the hell do you get off saying something like that?” He saw his daughter wince, but it was too late; he couldn’t stop; the train had already jumped the track. “You know-it-all son of a bitch. No one can tell you anything. You’ve got all the answers. I’ll tell you something, son-in-law, you’re just another low-grade con-man lawyer, of which this country could use about half a million fewer than it has. . . .” He looked again at his daughter, who didn’t know where to put her eyes.

There went Friday nights.

Dubinsky asked his friend Murray Kaplan if he remembered his having had such a violent temper in the past. Murray said no.

“Then what’s going on?”

“Forgive me if I’m wrong, Manny,” Murray offered, “but I wonder if maybe you’re not really angry at having lost Gracie the way you did. Maybe you’re taking it out on everyone else. I mean, it’s just possible.”

Dubinsky had to admit the possibility. He would have to control himself—and he also would have to control still another habit he had developed, that of delivering little lectures on the superiority of the past to the present. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, he found himself exclaiming to people he hardly knew that when he was in his twenties he hadn’t known of a single divorced couple—outside Hollywood, of course. Or he would launch into a sermonette on how young couples seemed to want everything these days, whereas when he was first married it was assumed that life’s luxuries were well in the future. Or he would attack today’s athletes, with their insanely large salaries, as unappreciative pigs. Or regale his dentist’s technician with an account of the Depression, when just to have a job was to consider oneself blessed, whereas today. . .

This, too, had to stop.

_____________

 

A year or so after Grace’s death, friends, mostly other women, had begun to try fixing Dubinsky up. So strong was his loneliness that he went along with it, at least at first. Murray Kaplan’s wife Lillian knew widows she wanted him to meet. At Beth Emet, the synagogue where Grace had been more active than he, though he still went on occasion, other opportunities presented themselves.

Dubinsky wasn’t looking for a tootsie. He was now seventy-eight, and most of the women he considered eligible were in their middle-to-late sixties or early-to-middle seventies. Yet everyone seemed wrong. Many had serious health problems; others had been married to wealthy men and were looking for someone to maintain them at the same level of luxury.

But to Dubinsky the most astonishing thing of all was the high number of women he met who, as grandmothers, brought with them wildly dysfunctional families. At least he considered them dysfunctional, which he understood was the new word for screwed-up, wildly out of control, deeply meshugeh. One night at dinner, a woman named Ida Baumgartner broke down in tears. She had learned just before meeting him that her favorite granddaughter Brittany had been deserted by her lesbian companion of three years and was going through hell. Another, Louise Spivak, casually mentioned that her physician son-in-law had turned himself in to the Illinois medical board for cocaine addiction. Gladys Schwartz’s grandson had AIDS. Faye Bernstein’s son Marvin was leaving his wife, which didn’t seem too terrible until she added that he was planning a sex-change operation. My God, thought Dubinsky, while I was living quietly with my wife and shopping around for metals, the world was going mad.

He pulled back. Enough with these women and their crazy families; better to live alone, quietly, sanely. Still, the loneliness got to him. For about eleven seconds he considered a retirement home, where something like a social life would be provided. But, although he suffered some of the memory lapses of age, his health—touch wood—was still excellent, his mind clear; he could make it fine on his own, with luck maybe for a good while longer.

Time lay heavily. On a typical day, Dubinsky awoke at six—go break the habits of a lifetime—had coffee, juice, and cereal, read through the Chicago Tribune, and was showered by 7:30. He had joined the Evanston Athletic Club, and five days a week he went for a one-hour workout: a bit of walking around the track, time on the stationary bicycle, the rowing machine, the treadmill, some light weight-lifting. He was usually finished by nine o’clock. The rest of the day hung there, like a punishing desert sun, bearing down on him.

Some mornings he would do a bit of food shopping, having learned by now how to put a Stouffers dinner in the microwave and warm up Progresso soups on the stove, though his doctor told him to watch the sodium. He could also boil hot dogs. Then there was the occasional medical or dental appointment, and every other Thursday, Krystyna, the Polish woman who cleaned the apartment, appeared at 9:30. His accountant he saw exactly once a year, at tax time. He wasn’t much on movies. Though he watched television, mostly the news on CNN or PBS and some sports, the so-called prime-time stuff left him pretty cold. He met his daughter Ruthie for lunch, though less often than after he told off her husband. He was saddened to discover they hadn’t all that much to say to each other.

_____________

 

Dubinsky had always been a reader. Thank God for that. He began using the Evanston library, where he took out two or three books a week, mostly on current history and especially on the war, his war, World War II. He was also a sucker for books on Winston Churchill, the greatest man, he thought, of the 20th century. The library, recently rebuilt, was a large, comfortable place, clean and well-lit, and Dubinsky spent much time on the third floor, in the periodicals section. He began reading the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Business Week, Forbes, the Economist. He wasn’t a stock-market man, nor did he know all that much about the intricacies of economics, but he did like to think himself a businessman, even in retirement. Besides, he preferred the library to the isolation of his apartment with its sometimes overwhelming weight of memories.

In the periodicals section the main librarian was a small woman, pudgy, with long hair beginning to turn gray, given to extremes of moodiness. Sometimes she made Dubinsky feel he was part of the family, at other times that he was an old bum using the library for shelter. Another woman, a light-skinned black, maybe a mulatto, also worked in the section part-time. Her cheerfulness was perpetual, her smile winning. She was tallish, slender, and wore soft dresses and gauzy scarves of vibrant colors. She knew his name from the small forms he filled out when he needed to see a back issue of one of his business magazines. “How are you, Mr. Dubinsky?” she would say, or, “Nice day, isn’t it, Mr. Dubinsky?” He didn’t know her name.

On the day that would have been his 53rd wedding anniversary, Dubinsky got up with an odd pain in his left knee. Murray, two years older, had once warned him about these signs of age. “The morning you wake up free of pain,” he had said, “watch out. You’re probably dead.” Dubinsky limped into the kitchen, poured juice and cereal, put up the water for instant coffee. He decided to take a pass on the health club. Skimming through the Trib, he wondered what the day would have been like if Grace were still alive. Would they have had a party with their friends to celebrate? Would they have gone off on a trip together, maybe to New York to see some shows? God, he missed her.

He went into the den to pay some bills, taking out his checkbook, his Cross pen, the packet of stamps. He was signing a check to the gas company when his eyes fogged. Jesus, Dubinsky thought, I’m crying. On the couch now, facing the television set, he felt the tears come faster. “Grace,” he said to the empty room, “I should have gone first. It would have made more sense.”

It was a new low, and it wasn’t his style. Quickly, leaving the bills on the desk, Dubinsky showered and dressed and left for the library. He made his way through the Wall Street Journal, then forced himself to read through a good part of the current Fortune. This being his wedding anniversary, he decided to treat himself to lunch at an Italian restaurant across the street, where a young waiter announced that his name was Howard and proceeded to recite the chef’s specials for the day at a level of detail Dubinsky had no hope of following. He ordered a grilled chicken sandwich and an iced tea. The noise level in the place seemed very high, and Howard must have returned four times to ask if everything was all right. Scanning the room, Dubinsky decided he was the oldest person there by twenty years.

After buying a few toiletries at the drugstore and browsing at Barnes & Noble, Dubinsky returned to the library at two. He took from the shelf Churchill’s Generals by John Keegan, and began to read in one of the comfortable leather chairs until he felt a jerk of his neck and realized that he had fallen asleep. For more than two hours, it turned out. Old-man stuff, he thought, this nodding-off in public places. Had his mouth been open, had he been snoring? No one was in sight except for two black high-school girls working on their homework at a nearby table.

Dubinsky gathered up the Churchill book along with his small plastic bag of toiletries and walked, slowly, down the long, rather steep staircase to the first floor. At one of the automatic check-out machines, he removed his library card from his wallet and put the book through. As he was picking it up, the pleasant woman from the periodicals section walked past.

“Hello, Mr. Dubinsky,” she said, flashing her smile.

“Nice to see you,” said Dubinsky, still a bit dazed from his nap. He stared at her as she walked off, then took his book and left.

_____________

 

The phone rang at a little after seven as Dubinsky was finishing his microwaved frozen Salisbury steak with potatoes and a dish of vanilla ice cream washed down by decaffeinated coffee.

“Hello, this is Olivia Hampton.” The voice was familiar, but not the name.

“I’m sorry, who?”

“At the library.”

Of course. “Sorry,” said Dubinsky. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, it seems you left your wallet in the library, and I have it with me now. I would have called earlier, but I’ve been on the run.”

Dubinsky’s hand went to his back pocket. Empty. Gone.

“My God,” he said, “I hadn’t even noticed it was missing. Where’d you find it?”

“It was on the table at the check-out machines. Someone turned it in. When would you like to pick it up?”

“I guess I could get it at the library tomorrow,” he said.

“I’m not planning to go in to work tomorrow,” she said. “Maybe you could pick it up here. I’m on Madison, in southeast Evanston. Or I could drop it off for you if you like.”

Dubinsky thought for a moment. He didn’t like to drive at night if he could avoid it, but he also didn’t want to ask this woman to come out.

“Are you by any chance free to meet me for lunch tomorrow?” he asked.

“I guess I could be,” she said.

The Italian restaurant came vaguely to mind. “How about the Roxy, at noon?”

“I’ll see you there,” she said, and hung up.

Standing in the foyer—he arrived ten minutes early—Dubinsky wondered if he’d made a mistake. Until last night he hadn’t known this woman’s name. What the hell would they talk about? How would he get through this lunch?

“Miss Hampton,” he said, as she entered through the revolving door. She was wearing a cream-colored dress and a bright red scarf with lots of blue and yellow in it. Her shoes were red.

She held out her hand. “Nice to see you, Mr. Dubinsky,” she said. “By the way, it’s Mrs. Hampton.”

“You’re married?”

“Was. I’m a widow. My husband died nine years ago.”

A woman in her early twenties, in black pants and top, hair pulled back from her face, showed them to a table against the wall. The restaurant didn’t seem quite so daunting as before.

“Do you come here often?” she asked. What wonderful teeth, Dubinsky thought, strong and white. He himself wore a partial bridge. She must have been in her early sixties, maybe a touch older.

“Not too often,” he replied.

“Hi,” a young girl announced. “I’m Kelley, and I’ll be your server today. May I tell you about our specials?”

They exchanged glances.

“Sure,” said Dubinsky, “let ‘er rip,” and she went through her spiel: “just a touch of tarragon,” “a light coating of pesto,” “a slight hint of balsamic vinegar.” Again they looked at each other, smiling.

“Look here, honey,” Mrs. Hampton said, “I think you can stop all that talk now. I’m going to have the grilled chicken sandwich and some iced tea.”

“Same for me,” Dubinsky said, ordering yesterday’s lunch.

“Strange world we’re living in,” she said. “Perhaps you’ve noticed.”

“Afraid I have. It’s become one of my subjects—one I’ve had to steer myself away from. I get a little crazy on it.”

“Me, too,” she said. “I find I have to bite my tongue all the time. Especially at the library. The other night I went to a movie, and when I came out I said to myself, ‘I don’t ever want to see another movie I haven’t already seen before—maybe 30 years before.’ Oh, before I forget,” she reached into her purse, “your wallet.”

A delicate moment, Dubinsky thought. He considered offering a reward but then, afraid of insulting her, thought better of it.

“There’s sixty-eight dollars in it,” she said. “Nothing important’s missing, I hope.”

Dubinsky checked for his credit cards, his driver’s license; everything seemed to be there. “This is a first for me, leaving my wallet,” he said. “I’m glad to have it back. Thanks.”

“I’ve left my purse in different places more than once. It’s part of getting older, I suppose.”

“You haven’t hit that age yet,” he said.

“I’m seventy-two.”

“Really,” Dubinsky said. “I hope you don’t think I’m conning you, but you seem a lot younger.”

“I do think you’re conning me, but feel free to do more of it.” She flashed her smile again. “Tell me, Mr. Dubinsky, how long have you been a widower?”

“Three years, but I don’t remember saying I was a widower.”

“You didn’t have to,” she said. “It shows.”

“How so?”

“The way you carry yourself. The sadness around the eyes, the bereft look.”

“It’s that obvious.”

“To me it is. But then I still see it in myself, and it’s nearly ten years since my husband died. I think the only serious penalty you pay for a good marriage is that you never really get over its coming to an end. I still get up some mornings disappointed that Charley isn’t next to me.”

“Then it doesn’t get any easier?”

“You lose something that can’t be replaced. At the same time, you know, life goes on. It has to go on.”

Dubinsky wondered what Grace would have thought of this woman. He wondered, in fact, what she would have thought of his being at lunch with a black woman who sounded, if truth be told, as if she were Jewish.

“My wife also happened to have been my best friend, so it was like losing two key people at once, if you know what I mean, Mrs. Hampton.”

“Forgive me, but if we’re going to talk about such things, maybe you’d better call me Olivia.”

“I’m Immanuel—Manny, if you like.”

Through the rest of lunch he filled her in on his family, and learned from her that she had a son who was a dentist living in South Shore and a daughter in Washington, D.C., with three kids and a husband who sold municipal bonds. Her own husband, like her son, had been a dentist. She herself had gone to the University of Chicago but didn’t finish her degree, which she much regretted. She had begun working at the library a year after her husband died. Nothing dysfunctional here.

She was very funny about her co-workers. She told him about a librarian on the second floor, a woman in her fifties, who hated to put new books into circulation, claiming that the patrons would only wreck them eventually. “I mean,” she said, “she actually used the word ‘eventually.’ ” The mood swings of the woman in periodicals she attributed to her relationship with a man she had been dating for some 23 years who was himself under the thumb of a psychotherapist and who didn’t feel he should marry or do anything to alter his life until he completed therapy. “And that,” she said, “figures to be around the time vaudeville comes back. Poor Kathy, I’m afraid she’s just not a good closer.”

Dubinsky was having a good time. They rehearsed their common view that the world was growing nuttier and nuttier, dumber and dumber. Dubinsky confided his opinions on men’s ponytails, purple and other colored hair, earrings inserted in places other than the ear. He mentioned what seemed to him the madness in the families of the few women he had gone out with after his wife died. He discovered he was able to make her laugh.

“My motto,” she said, “has become, take the world as you find it, but in your own fashion try not to leave it that way. Does that make any sense?”

Dubinsky didn’t want to answer too quickly. “It does,” he said after a pause, “it really does.”

_____________

 

The restaurant was beginning to empty. He looked at his watch: they had been together for more than two and a half hours.

“I suppose we ought to let this young woman go home,” she said.

“I suppose so.” Dubinsky left the money for lunch and a 30-percent tip. When they emerged the sun was strong and he experienced that sweet sensation of return that he used to feel 70-odd years ago coming out of the Granada movie theater into the sunlight. Then, as now, he had to adjust, and then as now the adjustment was to a slightly richer reality.

“Olivia,” he said, shaking her hand, “I would like it if we could do this again.”

“I would, too, Immanuel,” she said. “Call when you feel like. My number’s in the book.”

“I will,” he said, “maybe fairly soon.”

“That would be fine. And thanks for lunch.”

“Thanks for the wallet.”

Driving home in a haze of elation, Dubinsky looked down at the speedometer and noted that he was doing 45 in a 30-mile-an-hour zone. He braked gently and wondered how many days he was required to wait before calling her for dinner.

_____________

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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