Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene: Uncle Ben of Upper Broadway

The Uncle Bens of the world, at home on Central Park West and in the garment center, are more than men; they are a way of life, and among the things they know with certainty is what is required of lesser folk, be they from the New Jersey side of the family or elsewhere. Not that they mean badly. . . .

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I remember the night my uncle died. Of course he really didn’t die; but for me he died just as wholly as if he had been buried from the Riverside Memorial Chapel, as was customary for the New York side of the family.

As a matter of fact, he had begun to die long before, but I didn’t realize it. It began when I was around fourteen, and my father and my sister and I lived in West Orange in New Jersey. We had a house on Northfield Avenue halfway between the houses of the Edison plant workers in the valley and the houses of the upper-class New York commuters on Orange Mountain above Gregory Avenue.

We Jerseyites were considered black sheep by the New York side of the family, my mother having married a college professor who taught at Rutgers, from a family whose members were always buried from Apter’s Funeral Parlor in Newark. We weren’t rich or poor; we got by the depression years paying most of our bills after the collection company sent us a polite reminder. In the evening I’d read books on photography, sitting at my desk in my bedroom, a bold addition to the eighty-year-old house, flaunting its raw youth like a slap in the face, almost dragging the house down the naked cliff beneath my nine windows.

On a clear evening I could see Newark down in the valley, and beyond the meadows was the blazing New York skyline. In those days New York was where I went to visit Uncle Ben weekends.

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Looking back now, I feel sorry for Uncle Ben because he was really a very lonely man. He and Aunt Lil never could have the one thing they wanted most in this world, a child of their own. How they loved children! They were good to all their nieces arid nephews, but especially good to me, never forgetting a birthday, Christmas, Easter, even minor holidays, and inviting me to spend weekends at their apartment in the Beresford on Central Park West. During the hot summer months I went out to their home in Long Beach on the Island, and went swimming at their club.

The summer after my fourteenth birthday, Uncle Ben invited me on a trip out West. We traveled all over the country, stopping off to see “cloak and suit” buyers in the big cities, even crossing the border into Mexico, and wherever we went, I was introduced to his friends as “Sadie’s son.”

My mother had been the family favorite. When she died, her brothers, Ben among them, had promised to look after me. To the New York side of the family my father was only a teacher, a profession they frowned on.

Every Friday afternoon after school my father let me take the Lackawanna Railroad to the city, to spend the weekend at Uncle Ben’s apartment. I slept on the living room sofa. Uncle Ben and Aunt Lil brought me back to our house on Sunday. They always bought cake from the Tip Toe Inn on Broadway at 86th Street to take back to Jersey. “Nobody knows how to bake cake in Jersey,” Uncle Ben would say. “There’s nothing like New York cake, and the best is Tip Toe Inn.”

When I arrived on Friday afternoons, a game would always be in progress at Uncle Ben’s apartment. Aunt Lil would be “having the girls over for a luncheon,” sometimes to play mah-jongg afterwards, but usually to play gin rummy or poker. Poker was the favorite with the “girls.” I’d leave my suitcase in the hall closet, taking a minute to say hello to Aunt Lil’s friends. “The image of Sadie,” they said. While they played cards, they complained. If the sun was shining, it was too hot, and if it was snowing, it was too cold. When the races began in January, they fled to the warm shores of Miami, and when summer came they took the commuters’ express to the Jersey shore to play the horses at Kelly’s in West End. They were always running away to find something better, but when there was a birth, a marriage, or a death, they rushed home to be close to things from which they could not escape.

I’d eat some fruit or have a slice of chocolate cake and milk, and then wander across the street to the Museum of Natural History to browse around, or, if the weather was pleasant, I’d walk around the lake in Central Park taking pictures with my camera.

Saturday afternoons Uncle Ben took me around to be shown off to his poker-playing friends who lived at the Bretton Hall Hotel on Broadway. The Bretton Hall crowd were comfortably living off their annuities, their life insurance, and a few stocks and bonds, weekending down the Jersey Shore in the summer, going to Kelly’s to play the wheel and the horses, and in the winter following their wives to Miami.

The apartments at the Bretton Hall were old-fashioned, large, airy but dark, and there was always a green glass shade on the bright light over the dining room table. The card players wore green eyeshades to protect their eyes from the glare. Even though a big game was always in progress, the players would put aside their cards to say hello to Uncle Ben and me. “Eyes like Sadie,” they always remarked.

“Sure!” Uncle Ben would say. “He’s Sadie’s son.” Uncle Ben rarely played poker, preferring to sit and watch; Aunt Lil was the card player in the family. Whoever dropped out of a hand first would talk to Uncle Ben about tomorrow’s daily double because Uncle Ben loved to play the horses.

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Everybody at the Bretton Hall seemed to share the same memories. The talk among Uncle Ben and his friends was of Harlem where they had been brought up, and of going to PS 10; they had formed an alumni association to provide for their less fortunate schoolmates. Their wives’ organizations ran rummage sales with goods donated by their husbands, raising money to send needy children to camp during the stifling New York summers. Some of the Bretton Hall crowd still took an active interest in their businesses. At business, the husbands were hard, often brutal, but they were softness itself about their families and they supported their parents and their wives’ parents.

They never forgot Harlem, vaudeville at the Alhambra on a Saturday night, and the “cloak and suiters” who made good out on the Coast. Their sons went to the Walden School and the Ethical Culture School, and to the state universities down South or out West, and then went to work for their fathers or friends of their fathers, carrying on the line of one or the other of the tightly knit clans of first- and second-generation families that control much of the garment center.

The parents thought of themselves as sacrificing the greater part of their lives working and living for their children. At college, the children majored in English literature, psychology, acting—“Anything that isn’t practical,” so their families said—going on to graduate school where they studied for advanced degrees. Still, their parents proudly discussed their children over mah-jongg, gin rummy, and poker. Some of the children drifted away from Manhattan and Brooklyn, moving to the Coast. A few even became teachers. Their fathers put in longer hours at business to make more money to send them gifts of cars, clothing, food, trips to Paris and London. They bought their children’s homes for them, paying off their mortgages. And they boasted to their friends about their grandchildren, showing the pictures they carried in their wallets. How proud they were of their children’s children! The grandmothers in their mink coats would fly out to the Coast for the holidays, taking a cheese cake from Lindy’s, “specially wrapped.” It was a happy and contented circle—that is, if you could keep making a lot of money.

Uncle Ben and Aunt Lil were alone. They’d listen to their friends, look at their pictures. Then they talked about “Sadie’s son.” “He’s on the honor roll at high school,” Uncle Ben would say.

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I remember when Uncle Ben took me to a wholesale house for the first time to get me a coat. Uncle Ben walked past the switchboard operator and into the crowded showroom. A salesman recognized him, stopped talking to his customer and walked over to him, grinned and shook his hand. Everybody in the garment industry, even in boys’ wear, knew Uncle Ben, or so it seemed.

“You wait a few minutes, Ben,” the salesman said. “I want to attend to you personally.”

He returned to his customer. “The buyer from Marshall Field’s,” Uncle Ben said with respect, nudging me.

We sat quietly in an empty booth. I watched the salesmen flip the coats off the racks and handle them in their slick way, spreading them neatly and quickly before the buyers on the little tables in the booths, tossing the rejected garments back onto the empty racks, and all the time carrying on a glib conversation to divert the buyers’ minds, so they shouldn’t begin to feel worried over the size of their orders. “Take your time,” I overheard the salesman say to the Marshall Field buyer, “here you should feel at home.” Candy was passed around, the same salesman coming to our booth and offering us some. “On the house,” he said. “Blum’s. Flown in from the coast.” I took two pieces, Uncle Ben none. The salesman went back to the Marshall Field account.

“Remember,” Uncle Ben said to me in a low voice, “you watch and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Maybe you’ll become a buyer.” He glanced in the direction of the buyer from Marshall Field, who was recording his orders. “A smart buyer writes his own orders. That way no dogs slip in,” Uncle Ben said. “You gotta be shrewd and alert, remember.”

Compared to a “cloak and suit” house, this showroom was easy, Uncle Ben told me. “Nothing but grays and browns here. Less headache. Why worry about styles? You go into boys’ wear. It’s a clean line.”

But I felt out of place, and I didn’t like the way everybody was working at impressing everybody else. I hoped the salesman would hurry up with the buyer and wait on us, so I could take in an early show at the Music Hall.

The chief sewing woman, whom Uncle Ben called a “chairlady,” was called out of the factory to replace a button on a garment. The pattern maker came forward to explain the cut of a jacket to the Marshall Field buyer. The salesman nodded eagerly, then came over to our booth. “Troubles I’ve got,” he told Uncle Ben, and wiped the perspiration from his brow. He returned to the buyer.

“A handful of buyers like that can make or break this house,” Uncle Ben said. I looked closely at the buyer. He was no taller than Uncle Ben. “Power!—he’s on top,” Uncle Ben told me, taking out a pack of cigarettes and lighting one.

Out of all the samples on the racks in the showcase, I wanted the camel’s-hair coat: the color matched my camera case. Uncle Ben got up and walked over to the racks to finger the coat, running his hands gently over the cloth. The salesman shook hands with the buyer from Marshall Field’s, leading him to the elevator. “Delivered as promised,” the buyer demanded.

“Me you can trust,” the salesman replied.

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When the salesman came back, he said to Uncle Ben, “From him I’ve already got a headache.” He and Uncle Ben talked about baseball and the races, about business in general, then clothing in particular, and finally they discussed the camel’s-hair coat.

“You sure you like it?” Uncle Ben asked. “Remember this is wholesale. No exchanges.”

“I like it a lot, Uncle Ben, but—” Maybe the coat was too expensive.

“Nothing’s too good for Sadie’s son,” he cut in. “You try it on.” He helped me into the coat. It was a perfect fit.

“We’ll have the old coat packed,” Uncle Ben decided. When the salesman went to the wrapping room, Uncle Ben turned to me. “This coat is the best money can buy. You’ll be showing those Jersey friends of yours a high-class garment.”

“How much is it?” I asked.

“Never mind the price,” he said roughly.

Then the owner himself came over to shake hands with Uncle Ben. “How are gray goods?” he asked.

“Lousy,” Uncle Ben replied. “Not much raw layon available.”

The owner offered Uncle Ben a cigarette. They lit up. I returned to the booth and waited for the package, thinking that if there was time I’d take some pictures on Seventh Avenue with my camera before going to the Music Hall.

By now the showroom had emptied of buyers and special customers, who had all gone out to lunch. I was getting hungry. Our salesman, package in hand, walked over to me. “You sure have a good uncle buying you such a coat. You want to know something?” he said. “Only the Fifth Avenue stores can afford to carry this line. On you this coat fits like a prince.”

“You’re wonderful to Sadie’s kid,” the owner remarked, coming toward me, his eyes darting from Uncle Ben to me. I reached out to hold Uncle Ben’s hand.

Uncle Ben gazed at me with twinkling eyes. “He looks just like her,” he said proudly.

I found myself wanting Uncle Ben to introduce me by my name. Finally I said aloud, “My name is David . . . David Brockman.”

Uncle Ben dropped my hand. “He’s Sadie’s son,” he said again.

“I belong to the Jersey side of the family,” I said, persisting.

The owner smiled. “A Jerseyite, eh? How’s your father? I remember him when he and your mother and your Uncle Ben and I would go to the Alhambra on a Saturday night. That’s before your time.”

I noticed Uncle Ben’s face redden. The owner was being called over the loudspeaker system. He excused himself, and I was alone with Uncle Ben. There was a long silence.

“We better hurry,” Uncle Ben finally said, “if you’re going to catch an early train to Jersey.”

Disappointed at not being able to go to the Music Hall, I picked up the package, balancing it under my arm, but it felt heavy as it knocked against my camera. “Remember, you can’t exchange the coat,” Uncle Ben repeated, sourly.

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My sister had married, settling down in a small Jersey town, and after I got my discharge from the army, Uncle Ben helped me through college. In all those years I never wrote Uncle Ben for money; I wanted to be independent. Going to college, I worked part time as a shoe salesman, a waiter, a dishwasher, a window washer. Yet Uncle Ben always knew when to send me an extra dollar. I received a bachelor’s degree, went for a master’s, and then I decided I was finished with my education. I came back to New York and rented a furnished room on 72nd Street, having some of my dinners at Uncle Ben’s.

My first two years out of college were spent drifting from job to job, from assistant buyer in a resident buying office to publicity writer in a fund-raising outfit. At one time I was on unemployment relief. I had my heart set on breaking into photography, preferably as a staff photographer on a magazine. During lunch hours and between jobs, I made the rounds of magazine offices, carrying my pictures in a manila folder.

I tried to tell Uncle Ben about the people I knew: photographers, artists, writers, musicians. “Get wise,” he said. “A friend is a person who can lend you a buck or land you a job.”

I did the same thing most young newcomers to New York do: walking the streets at odd hours, hanging around bars, picking up strangers and talking to them. I did a lot of traveling in New York. People began to confide in me. When they left the bar, or when I got off the bus, they forgot they had ever known me. I wanted to tell Uncle Ben about those strangers. I tried, but he didn’t understand. “You live a good, clean, healthy life,” he said. “That’s all I want you to do. Then I’ll be happy.”

I didn’t tell Uncle Ben and Aunt Lil about the hangouts on Third Avenue, Lexington, the Bowery, the Village, and also uptown on the East Side. I had saved enough money to buy a second-hand Leica; and I weaved in and out of all the dark spots, trying to catch some of the hungry desperation with my camera. “There are such nice people your own age on Central Park West,” Aunt Lil said. “Why don’t you take their pictures instead?”

Uncle Ben offered to introduce me to his friends. I told him I was going to be a successful photographer. “You’re floundering,” he said, and once in a while, at dinner, he would show his resentment.

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I got a job as salesman in the showroom of a high-priced boys’-wear house, knocking out seventy a week, banking forty. I wanted money for a trip to Europe. A year, and I’d have enough. For a while Uncle Ben was happy again, until he heard I was going to leave the showroom.

One afternoon he telephoned me at the showroom to buy some food and bring it up to have dinner with him at his apartment. I was leaving for Paris at the end of the month, and I wanted to see Uncle Ben before I left. Aunt Lil was out at Long Beach for the summer. He spent weekends there, and during the week he ate alone. I went to the Tip Toe Inn for cold cuts, careful to buy lean tongue and roast beef because of Uncle Ben’s indigestion.

At six o’clock, when I arrived at his place, he was standing in his shorts at the door waiting for me. Aunt Lil and Uncle Ben never waited for the doorbell to ring. Since they knew in advance when company was expected (you telephoned first from the lobby) they would open the door when the elevator stopped at their floor. When his wife was away in the summer, Uncle Ben lived in his shorts in his apartment.

“Come in,” Uncle Ben said. “What didja buy? I hope you used some sense this time. That’s your trouble, you know, no sense.”

I boiled water for instant coffee. I skinned the tomatoes, since Uncle Ben couldn’t digest tomato skins, and I scrambled eggs for myself. Uncle Ben scrambled his own, not wanting to take any chances with my cooking. We began to eat.

“Humph!” Uncle Ben said. “Where didja get this crap? Jesus Christ, not only don’t you have enough sense to hold a steady job, you can’t even buy Grade A meat.” He got up from his chair to pour boiling water over the instant coffee in his cup.

“I’ll do that for you,” I said.

“Never mind,” he said. “You eat.”

Later, after I washed the dishes and he dried them, we sat in the living room watching television. I was hoping he’d ask me about my photography, how it was coming along. I had been sending a lot of pictures to magazines and contests. I had even received honorable mention in a nationwide contest. If he would only wish me good luck on my trip to Europe. But he remained silent. He picked up the World-Telegram, looked at the stock market quotations, and put the paper aside. Then he lit a cigar—against the doctor’s orders. Finally he said, “What’s this nonsense about your going to Europe next month? I know a psychiatrist on 65th Street. I’ll take you there tomorrow.”

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to hurt Uncle Ben’s feelings.

“You’re a dreamer, too, like your father, and you’re following in his footsteps.” He turned off the television. “You got to go to college to make seventy bucks a week—I don’t know.” Uncle Ben shook his head. “Neither of us have degrees.”

I reached for a mint in the candy dish on the coffee table, stopped, decided against it.

“Go back to Jersey,” he said. “New York won’t do you any good.” He was inhaling heavily on his cigar, and the smoke filled his corner of the room, blurring him before my eyes. “Get wise!” He went to the card table and picked up the cards, shuffling them slowly before laying them out for a game of solitaire. There were ten minutes of silence while he lost a game. “I never wanted to tell you this before,” he said, “but you’ve turned out to be the biggest disappointment in our lives.”

I got up to leave. “Wait for me,” Uncle Ben said, putting away the cards. “I’ll walk you to the corner.” He went to his bedroom and dressed.

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We left his apartment and walked in silence down 81st Street to Broadway. “Take care of yourself,” he said, leaving me standing alone at the corner. He was walking in the direction of the Bretton Hall Hotel. He hadn’t asked me to walk with him. “Give me a call,” was the last thing he said.

Uncle Ben would never be able to say to his friends at the Bretton Hall Hotel, “My nephew’s down at Macy’s now. Got some big job there.”

“He owes it all to you,” one of the PS 10 alumni would have said. “To him you were like a father.” Uncle Ben would have smiled, watching the cards being dealt, and then arguing over how someone played the hand, kibitzing as usual.

I watched him walk up Broadway until he disappeared in the distance. I was hoping he’d glance back, but he didn’t. I crossed the street and had a drink in the Tux Bar at the corner. Then I went out into the cool night air, walking slowly down 79th Street to Riverside Drive, past the clover-leaf entrance to the West Side Highway and down the 159 steps—I counted them—to the yacht basin. I walked past benches, peered into faces, listened to voices, heard baseball scores coming over the portable radios. Finally I reached the 72nd Street exit and climbed the steps up to Riverside Drive again. I walked up 72nd Street to Central Park West and back to Uncle Ben’s apartment house. It was very dark outside, and I waited downstairs for a long time. Then I returned to my place. I spent some time fussing with my photography equipment before reaching for a last cigarette. When I took off my watch, I noticed the time. It was one o’clock when Uncle Ben died.

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