Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene: I Cash Clothes!

The clothes peddler remains a familiar sight to big-city housewives; Donald Paneth here tells the story of Henry Getoff, a member of this ancient and honorable Jewish profession. 

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The shops of New York City’s second-hand clothing dealers crowd the bottom of Elizabeth Street on the rim of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in the block below Canal Street. The block is quiet, despite the insistent echo of heavy trucks rumbling noisily across Canal Street’s uneven cobblestones; the Fifth Precinct, which polices the Bowery and Chinatown, is near the corner; the small shops nestle in low, ancient brick buildings, and their proprietors buy frayed suits, coats, and trousers from old-clothes peddlers and sell them to mid-West and Southern outlets. The peddlers are as shabby as the clothing they bear. They are old men, Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland, who have shuffled through the city, clutching wrapped newspapers, crying, “I buy! Cash clothes!” for thirty, forty, fifty years. The peddlers are poorly dressed, and many need a shave. They are poor men.

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Henry Getoff is an old-clothes peddler. He canvasses neighborhoods—Washington Heights, West End Avenue, Jackson Heights, the Grand Concourse—for old clothes, calling, “Buy cash! Buy!” He carries a tightly folded newspaper (“This is the sign I buy,” he says) and brown wrapping paper for his purchases. It isn’t an easy business. He works in all weathers, is unable to take a vacation, is constantly liable to arrest for making unnecessary noise, and his earnings are unpredictable. “It is a lot of walking,” he says. “And nothing extra in money. Just enough to get along.”

In the neighborhoods, housewives know him. When they hear his familiar cry, and they have clothes to sell, they lean from apartment windows and call, “Hey, mister!” From them, Getoff buys a vest for a quarter which he resells for fifty cents, a suit for one dollar which he resells for two-fifty, a topcoat for three dollars which he resells for five. He buys only men’s clothing, women’s styles shift too quickly. Before he buys, he carefully examines each garment for torn linings, moth holes, cigarette burns, and damaged collars. “Makes no difference if it’s old and dirty,” he says. “But it must be in good condition. Those that aren’t we call wrecks. Junk peddlers buy them.” Near mid-afternoon each day, Getoff leaves for the market, the crowded row of shops on Elizabeth Street, where he deals amiably and rapidly with two dealers, whom he knows particularly well. On a good day, he sells them twenty-five dollars worth of clothing. “The dealers know me,” he says. “And I know the dealers. We know what everything’s worth. We don’t try to fool each other.”

Getoff, a short, stocky man, sixty-two years old, differs in appearance from most peddlers. His clothes are clean, he doesn’t need a shave, and his face is unlined. His hair is gray though and closely cropped, his mustache is small and fuzzy, his eyes are alert and intelligent. He speaks English hesitantly, but capably. He has been an old-clothes peddler thirty-seven years.

He is a businessman without office, inventory, or records. He has a neat card with his name, address, and phone number, his hours of business are 9 AM to 4 PM with special evening appointments. He has many regular customers. “I have customers twenty-five years,” he says. “I never lose a customer—unless I don’t like him. I buy from the people in a nice way. I always try to satisfy them, and if they forget something in the pocket, I return it. In business, big or small, you have to be honest.” Getoff emphasizes that he is his own boss. That is important to him. When he arrived with his wife in the United States from Russia in 1913, he was employed for a week as a clerk in a grocery store. A religious man, he prepared to leave the store for synagogue early Friday evening. The shopkeeper said to him, “What’s the matter with you, Getoff? Are you a greenhorn? In America, you don’t stop work for synagogue.” He quit the job abruptly, and since then has been self-employed.

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Each weekday morning, Getoff leaves his Bronx home on Fulton Avenue, opposite Crotona Park, and selects a neighborhood to canvass; depending on his impulse it may be in the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and even Long Island or New Jersey. He walks slowly through the neighborhood, along avenues and down side streets, backtracking too, for five or six hours. “I like to walk,” he says. “I like the fresh air.” As he walks, he swings his wrapped newspaper, scans apartment windows for customers, and calls, “I buy! Cash clothes!” Or, “Buy cash! Buy!” All old-clothes peddlers carry a newspaper as a trade mark. “Apartment houses are very high,” he explains. “A customer may not hear the call, but she will see the paper. So she knows the old-clothes man.” In every neighborhood, Getoff is friendly with a shoemaker, a tailor, or a druggist, with whom he can leave his package of clothes, as it becomes too heavy for him to carry easily. “Some peddlers must walk with the package,” he says. “They are not acquainted with all the people as I am.” Two or three times a day, he calls his wife at home for phone messages she may have received for him. “I call her from the road,” he says, “like a doctor calls his nurse,”

In his quest for customers, Getoff is confronted with three business hazards: the weather, the police, and the holdup. Rain and snow are bad for business. “That’s what you call the miserable days,” he says. “Housewives don’t like to call the man from the street. She has a nice carpet, or little children who might catch cold.” In the past ten years, Getoff has been arrested five or six times for making unnecessary noise, but he has always been able to pay the one dollar or two dollars fine, and so has never passed a night in jail. Once, a policeman on Washington Heights gave him a summons for hollering before 9 AM, and when he appeared in court, he pleaded guilty, but with an explanation. “Your honor,” he said, “I leave my house at nine, and I take two trolleys to the Heights. It takes me half an hour, maybe three-quarters. I could be on the Heights at nine?” The judge dismissed the case. The holdup is actually the least of the perils, but Getoff fears it the most. He has never been robbed, but he knows several peddlers who have been beaten for their money, a few dollars. So whenever he receives an evening call from someone he doesn’t know, he asks his youngest son, Louis, to call and check and make certain the offer to sell is legitimate.

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Getoff scrawls the last name and address of reliable and productive customers in a battered vest-pocket notebook. His customers are mostly businessmen—“Working people don’t sell old clothes,” he says—and he has known many of them twenty or thirty years. “One customer by the name Sobel lives on the Concourse,” he says. “Very nice people. He’s manager in a big concern. It must be a nice salary: they live nice and educate their children nice. Another customer lives in a hotel on West End Avenue. He’s a rich man, a manufacturer of men’s suits. I buy from his daughter too. One woman in Yonkers I know thirty-five years. She treats me like a brother. When I come, it’s ‘How are you, Getoff? Take your coat off. Sit down.’ She recommends me to many people.”

Although he is obliging, he often has small difficulties with his customers. They may recommend him to a sister or cousin whom he may dislike, but to whom he must be as pleasant as possible: he cannot offend a good customer’s relative; or a woman will bargain relentlessly with him, demanding a price he cannot pay. He has a formula for coping with her. The clothes she offers may be worth twenty dollars, but she asks fifty dollars, and since she would simply shrug if he offered the true value, he proposes thirty-five dollars. “Go on! Go on!” she yells. “Take a walk!” A week later, Getoff calls back, and she remembers him: she has already spoken to three more peddlers, who refused to buy, and perhaps quarreled with her, and she is willing to lower her demands. “All right,” she says. “I’ll take thirty-five dollars.” But, now prices are off, the market is down, and Getoff says twenty dollars—which she accepts reluctantly.

When he refers to his customers, whom he likes to observe and analyze, Getoff customarily divides them into two groups: woman and woman, man and man, rich people and rich people, boy and boy. “Old people from the other side who have money think they’re somebody because they’re rich,” he says. “They look down on you. They show they don’t like to deal with a peddler. Then, there are rich people with education. They give me a chair and on a hot day a cold drink. They have feeling. They have consideration. A boy is twenty years old. He talks to me nice, he doesn’t get excited. A boy is thirty-five. Maybe, he’s not so bad, but he gets excited. This is in him already. He’s an old bachelor, and he’s got too much on his mind—why he didn’t marry. Probably he’s disappointed.”

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Getoff leaves the neighborhood with his package for the market about 2 PM. At five and nine Elizabeth Street, the peddlers have lockers in which they keep the clothes they are unable to sell immediately. Nine Elizabeth Street is a store with an unwashed window and two signs: “Restaurant—Home Cooking” and “Tailor—All Repairs.” Inside, the store is long and narrow and dimly lit, the wooden floor is bare and dirty, a long, narrow counter for resting packages is at the right. Nearly one hundred lockers crowd the walls from floor to ceiling. They are deep, two feet by two feet, and rent for one dollar to three dollars a month; the lockers nearest the ceiling are the cheapest. The tailor and restaurant, with four tables and a perpetual pinochle game, are in back.

Peddlers crowd the store in the afternoon. Activity is intense with much movement and loud conversation in Yiddish and English. In a corner, one peddler offers another peddler a suit. “This is a good suit,” he says. “Sharkskin.” “I give you two dollars.” “Two dollars? Ha! I take it home with me.” “OK, two-fifty. Your own brother wouldn’t give you more. Would I fool you?” “Listen, what the hell’s the matter with you? If you want it, buy it—at a fair price. If you don’t want it, I don’t feel bad. I sell it.” At a locker, a short, pudgy peddler sorts clothing as he comments hoarsely to his neighbor about a mutual acquaintance: “That guy is a crook. I know him. He’s no good for nothing. He’s crazy. Him with all his money. He works Saturday, he works Sunday, he works Yom Kippur. Big shot! He oughta be on Fifth Avenue. I don’t talk to him no more. He can drop dead for me.” Near the door, a tall, stooped, grumbling man, an alcoholic from the Bowery, a block away, attempts to sell a ragged garment to a peddler. “Look at that label,” he says. “That alone’s worth fifteen cents. I hate to tell you what I paid for this shirt originally. Eight dollars. Eight dollars. And now I can’t get fifteen cents for it. But I could buy a suit or coat here cheap as hell. For fifty cents a suit that I could pawn for two dollars. I know. I’ve done it.”

Getoff is friendly with most of the peddlers, and speaks to them while unwrapping his clothes, before going into the market; among them, the timeless question is, “What’ve you got?” This is what they talk about. “One peddler,” Getoff says, “I used to go partners with, and split profits. He’s mine age. He comes from Poland. I would have the money. He would have the customer. I appeal more to women than him. We’re still friends.”

The tight row of dealers’ shops—the market—crowds the street outside Nine Elizabeth. “The market was here when I came,” Getoff says. “And I know peddlers ninety years old, who have been here sixty-five years. They say the market was here when they came.” Getoff sells his clothes to two dealers, who operate small, cluttered shops, where clothing is piled on high, huge shelves; in the fall and winter, he sells them winter suits, top coats, and shoes. (Summer is the slow season with little to buy and sell.) One of the dealers is sixty-five years old, he comes from Vilna; the other is fifty-eight, he comes from Kiev. “They’re plain Yiddish men,” Getoff says. “They have a nice family. Plenty of money. They deal nice.” They remodel and clean and sell the clothes that they buy to retailers from Detroit, Cleveland, Des Moines, Dallas, Atlanta, Savannah, Birmingham, where they are sold eventually to farm and factory workers.

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Henry Getoff, old-clothes peddler, was born on July 16, 1887 in Lubin, Russia, a small, hilly city of twenty thousand in the Ukraine. He was the son of Tuba, a religious, charitable, simple woman, and Louis Getoff, a friendly, unexcitable, goodnatured flour dealer. Getoff had two brothers, Zalman and Jacob, and three sisters, Fanny, Bella, and Ida; they lived in a stucco, three-room house on the edge of Lubin, near a small lake, where townswomen washed clothes and fetched water, and boys, like himself, fished and boated and swam. “It was quiet and pretty,” Getoff says. He studied the Bible and Talmud at a small school in Lubin from his sixth to his twelfth year, and then looked for work. “In the little city there was nothing to do,” he recalls. “I went to Kiev.” From fourteen to twenty-one, he traveled about the Ukraine, from Kharkov to Odessa to Kiev. “I was in all kinds of business,” he says. “Different business every year.” In Kharkov, he sold flowers; in Odessa, he worked in a shoe factory and was a rope salesman; in Kiev, where he lived five years, he owned an appetizing store, which sold prunes, salmon, figs, dates, white fish.

“Kiev was wonderful,” he says. “A clean, beautiful city with factories of all kinds. I felt nice in Kiev. It was something new and interesting. In a shop window on the widest boulevard was a solid gold lion—an advertisement. In all of Russia, I never saw such. Just in Kiev. Also, businessmen made a good living. Some Jews had permits to live there, but small people like me had a politician. I paid him one dollar a week for a certain paper.” But life in Kiev was not entirely pleasant. In 1904, when he was seventeen, he was one of two hundred Jewish men and youths who fought a pogrom mob; a pistol bullet wounded him in the neck, and he was hospitalized three months. “Boys were men in the old country,” he says. “Life learned us quickly. We supported ourselves. Not like in America, where a boy may be good in school, but nothing else.”

When Getoff was twenty-one, he returned to Lubin and avoided conscription in the Czar’s army through the intervention of a physician. “He was a family friend,” Getoff explains. “And the head doctor for conscription. He did a favor, and overlooked me. He was an honest man. He took no money.” Then, Getoff married Bessie Platkin, a young baker’s daughter, whom he had known as a child. “Business in Russia was not good,” he says. “It was bad for Jews. There were always pogroms, and you couldn’t go to the university. Only rich Jews could live in Moscow or St. Petersburg. This makes me come to America.” He and his wife sailed in 1913 from a Latvian seaport aboard an old German freighter, jammed with seventeen hundred immigrants; his sisters, who married, and his brothers, who went into business, remained in Russia, and he hasn’t had a letter from them since 1938. The transatlantic voyage in rough seas took twenty-one days. “I will never forget how bad it was,” he says. “We were all seasick terrible. Everyone was praying the ship shouldn’t go down.”

In New York, he stayed for two weeks with an uncle in the Bronx, on Third Avenue between 173rd and 174th Streets two blocks from where he now lives. He worked a week in a grocery, and meanwhile met an old-clothes peddler, who told him, “You’re a young man; better to be in my business. It’ll keep you out in the fresh air.” T didn’t want to work in the garment shops,” Getoff says. “The pay was too low. So I went in this business.” He then attended night school for three weeks to study English. He enjoyed the school. “They teach the foreigners so good,” he says. “They learn us to read, to talk, to everything. They explain the people very nice. I see it was a mistake—I should go at least a year in school. It would be better for me. But, I was a married man; my wife didn’t like to be alone at night.”

Getoff liked the United States too. “I was happy,” he says. “The difference was day and night. Russia was miserable, but here children went to high school, Jews were doctors and lawyers, you could open a shop wherever you want. It appeals to me very good.” He became a citizen in 1935. As a peddler, he learned quickly: he became acquainted with dealers’ needs and prices and he slowly acquired customers about the city. He would stop people in the street, and ask them if they had any old clothes to sell; if they didn’t he would give them his card with his address. He didn’t have a telephone then; his customers sent him postcards. “When I was starting,” he says, “I used four or five dealers. I didn’t know the value of clothes, and when they gave me a price, I didn’t know if it was right. My dream was that I should be a dealer, but I never could collect enough money to open a shop.”

Though he needed business, Getoff never worked on Saturday, when he went to synagogue, or on Sunday, when he might be arrested for hollering on the Sabbath. He took his religion seriously, and regularly attended Friday evening and Saturday morning services. “I was religious when I was young and now I am the same thing,” he says. “There is a God. I believe in it. God is whatever I see—rain and snow and earth and mountains. who could make it but God?” In 1917 he and ten friends formed the Congregation Sabbath Observers of the Bronx; today Getoff is vice-president of the congregation, which has sixty members, its own synagogue, and two small cemeteries in New Jersey.

In 1918 and 1924, his two sons, Hyman and Louis, were born. “My father was very giving,” Louis says. “He didn’t have much, but he never held back anything. When it snowed, he built snowmen with us in Crotona Park, and every night he played checkers with Hy, who usually lost. Pa was good at checkers.” Getoff insisted his sons should be educated. Hy was graduated from City College and New York University’s Law School; during the war, he served in army intelligence on New Guinea, and he is now an attorney in Los Angeles. Louis, who was an army sergeant in India, also attended City College; he is a clinical psychologist, studying for his doctorate at Columbia University.

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Getoff’s wife, a short, stout, gregarious woman, recalls that the old-clothes business was never particularly lucrative. “It’s a bad business for money,” she says. “Sometimes, I’d yell at him: ‘Henry, you are a dope. Why are you in such a business? It’s lousy rotten.’ Afterwards I would feel bad. He is a good man.” Getoff earned the most money during the 20′s when he sold sixty or seventy dollars’ worth of clothing a day; now thirty dollars a day is excellent. “Now is worse than after the first war,” he says. “China used to take fifteen million old hats a year. No more. Turkey, Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary used to take also. But no more.” During the depression, people didn’t sell old clothes, and Getoff was continually in debt to loan companies. “My father wouldn’t consider relief,” Louis says. “I tried to explain to him the obligation of the state. But he wouldn’t listen.” To simplify business, Getoff installed a telephone in 1934, and at first his wife wouldn’t answer it when she was at home alone; “I was green,” she says. “I was scared of it.” In 1936, to stimulate business, he started to send postcards to families who published obituaries in the New York Times. He didn’t like to collect clothing from bereaved wives and children, but it was a source; finally, the technique spread, and in 1942, when a woman in his apartment house, whose husband was killed in an automobile accident, received a dozen postcards from old-clothes peddlers, he decided to abandon it.

Thirteen years ago, he spurred another change, a permanent one, within his trade: he helped organize the Used Clothing Dealers Association, to which one hundred and fifty peddlers—all of those in the city—now belong. “We needed an association to benefit peddlers,” he says. Members pay twenty-five cents a week dues and the association retains a lawyer, pays court fees, and lends needy or ill peddlers up to two hundred dollars. Getoff is a trustee and chairman of the loan fund, and twice a month on Thursday evening he attends a Board of Directors meeting at 151 Clinton Street. The board ordinarily considers routine business: a request for a loan, a proposal for a banquet, the collection of dues. But recently it faced a new and unexpected problem: the charity racket, in which an individual obtains a “permit” for five dollars from certain yeshivas, and rings doorbells for contributions of old clothing, which he pawns or sells. In January one hundred and fifty peddlers held a protest meeting. “Some yeshivas do not care,” Getoff declared angrily at the meeting. “They have the five dollars.” And a month ago, he met with several yeshiva rabbis, who said, “This is unbelievable,” and assured him they would investigate.

In his trade, Getoff is known as “The Professor.” Peddlers respect him as a leader and as the father of a lawyer and a doctor. He is serious, quiet, energetic, and assiduous. “He is a medium nature,” his wife says. “Not bad, not good. He gets excited when I ask for more money. But he’s not stingy—he doesn’t have it. He is a good husband: he doesn’t look on other womens, and he’s kind. He doesn’t play cards, but he likes his schnapps. He gets high on all the Jewish holidays.” And although he is essentially quiet, he is expansive at parties, weddings, and dinners, where, with the provocation of schnapps, he may make a speech, dance, or sing a Hebrew song.

When he leaves the Elizabeth Street market at 4 PM each day, he takes the Third Avenue El home to the Bronx. “My trade is all right,” he says. “I made a living. I raised my children. Now, young people are not becoming peddlers. This generation doesn’t like it. Maybe the next will—if it doesn’t, the trade dies.” Getoff’s five-room apartment, overlooking Crotona Park, is small and cluttered. “But, it’s comfortable,” he says. “A home. This is the best pleasure.” He eats simple suppers, enjoying soup, meat or chicken, and potatoes most; he doesn’t like dairy foods. In the evening, he rests. He has low blood pressure, but he refuses to see a doctor. “When it’s my time to go, I’ll go,” he says. He reads the Jewish Day and Morning Journal, but he no longer reads Sholom Aleichem, Tolstoy, or Gorki; he sleeps instead. Nor does he walk after supper, as he used to, and on a warm, sunny Saturday or Sunday, he likes to sit quietly in the green park opposite his house. “I am not a lawyer or a doctor,” he says. “When it is Friday already, I am tired.”

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