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Rosenfeld, Inc. and the Yontif Suit

By Tessa Dratt

When I turned eight, my father started to take me to his office during school breaks. We rode the subway because, my father said, it was the only sensible way to get from the Upper West Side of Manhattan down to Wall Street. We walked hand in hand to the station, went down a steep staircase and left behind the light of day. As we stood on the dim platform, I thrilled to the racket of the trains, the screech of metal against track, the smell of damp cardboard, burned rubber and rotting orange slices. Men in dark suits and hats, women in fluffy, patterned dresses or dreary raincoats flooded the platforms and closed in against me, but my father held tight to my hand; I felt eager and fearless, an important person on my way to work.

Oscar Rosenfeld, Inc., my father's business, was located on the 16th floor of a wide white building on lower Broadway. His space consisted of two large rooms, an outer secretary's office and, through a second door, his own. An enormous wooden desk held all his work and dwarfed him when he sat down behind it. Every wall of his office was covered with photos of mountains he'd climbed in the French, Swiss or Italian Alps. The mountains added to the already overwhelming feeling of too much space, but I knew that my father, a short, thin man, liked to surround himself with bigness.

I'd sit on the leather couch across from my father's desk, or fiddle with the keys of the telex machine perched on a high stand in the corner. Whenever he let me, I phoned him from the second line on the extension phone. I placed the call, let it ring through, changed my voice, pushed the button on the main line, and answered:

"Oscar Rosenfeld, Incorporated. May I help you? Oh? Yes, of course. Mr. Rosenfeld,"

I called across the room. "A call for you."

"You forgot to ask who it was," he said.

"Who is it?"

"No, Tessa. More polite. 'May I tell him who's on the line'?"

"OK. Wait. May I tell him who's on the line? Oh? Yes, of course, Mr. Pupick, one moment please." I depressed the hold button.

"Dad, it's Moishe Pupick."

"Ah, why didn't you say so right away?" My father picked up the phone. "Moishe, my friend. What a pleasure."

It was great fun. After Moishe Pupick, Mendl Mummick called and then his sister, Channah Krenk. Pretty soon the entire shteytl had checked in although eventually, the phone rang in earnest, and the game was over.

I thought it was grand of my father to be incorporated. It meant my mother could be a Vice-President even though she had no duties I could put my finger on and she never set foot in the office. "Advice and counsel," my father answered when I asked him exactly what her job was. When I begged to be Secretary of the corporation, he just smiled and said that I was under-age. What a blow. I could write like the wind in the stenographer's pads my father brought home, and I could collate, paper clip and staple with the best of them. I begged and pleaded for a corporate title, but my father was firm: At eight, I was just too young.

There were two secretaries' desks in the outer office, one for Mrs. Cohen, the widow, and one extra. My father always lowered his voice when he said "the widow" which led me to believe that widowhood must be a somewhat shady business.

In the flesh, Mrs. Cohen was a jolly woman, as religious as she was fragrant. She regularly sprayed herself with Arpège perfume that she kept in an atomizer inside her hand bag along with the pocket mirror she used to adjust the bangs on her sheytl. Whenever I spent the day at my father's office, she made sure I was well supplied with steno pads, carbon and onion skin paper, sharpened pencils, and a generous pile of heavy stationery with the company name embossed across the top in beautiful engraved script. I loved to run my fingers over the paper feeling the slight bulge of our family's name against my skin.

I sat for hours at the spare desk, hunting and pecking at the keys of the solid black Remington. I composed letters to all my friends in duplicate or triplicate. When I finished typing, Mrs. Cohen showed me how to insert the envelope and where to put the address before stamping the letter and adding it to the pile of correspondence she had completed that day. She kept a specially labeled manila folder in her desk so that I could file my copies and refer to them on my next visit.

On her desk, Mrs. Cohen kept a photo of her son, David, whose father, "he should rest in peace, poo-poo-poo", had died when the boy was just a baby. The kid in the photo wore an embroidered blue yarmulka, glasses with heavy frames and a serious expression. I loved the King David stories we studied in Hebrew School, so I asked Mrs. Cohen if she couldn't bring David along one day during vacation so we could meet. She just blushed and looked away.

"It wouldn't be seemly," she said.

"Seemly?"

"I work for your father."

"So?"

"So, I am his employee. David has his friends in his neighborhood. You have your friends in yours."

I wasn't satisfied with this explanation and made a mental note to ask my father about it, although I already had a suspicion our family might not be frum enough for her. Mrs. Cohen brought all her supplies to work, her lunch, her soda, her plastic knives and forks. The only thing that passed her lips was water from the tottering Hinkley-Schmidt cooler that stood in a corner behind the outer door and even then, she used a plastic cup she brought from home. My father and I, on the other hand, ate and drank pretty much anything we wanted so long as it wasn't ham, bacon or shellfish. I had long ago understood that our family's religious observance was a little slippery at best. We had a lot of rules, but a lot of exceptions as well.

The Tuesday before Passover of the year I turned nine, my father announced that we were going downtown to his office and then on to his tailor for the final fitting of his yontif suit. All family members got new outfits each year to wear to shul at Passover. Mine, a deep blue velvet dress with a white lace collar was already safely tucked in the back of my closet along with a pair of black patten leather Mary Janes that squeaked with every step. The long hours in shul seemed to pass faster when I had new clothes to wear.

My father and I set out from his office on foot, heading north towards Union Square at 14th street and Broadway where Mr. Gutman, the tailor, had his shop on the third floor of a dingy walk-up. Even before we got to the second floor, the smell of cigar smoke filled the air adding a bluish tinge to the already somber light.

The door to the shop was open and my father led me into a jumbled mess. Bolts of fabric lay piled on narrow tables, suits and coats hung suspended from rods stretched along the sides of the room. There was barely enough space to turn around except for a tiny area near the overcoats where a crooked three-way mirror squatted on the hardwood floor.

"Gutman? Gutman, where are you?" my father called.

"Watch out for the pins, sheynele," I heard someone call. "The floor is full of them."

A short, stocky man in a soiled shirt appeared from behind a rack of clothes wiping sweat from his bald head with a piece of rumpled cloth. A thick cigar stub stuck out of the corner of his mouth. His sleeves were rolled way up and his shirt was open so I saw the thick curly hair on his arms and the graying tufts at the top of his chest. Around his neck hung a tape measure. He smelled terrible.

"Nu, Gutman? Wie gehts?" asked my father.

"Can't complain," the tailor answered. "Hello, sheynele," he added and chucked me under the chin. The smell of cigar jumped from his fingers to my skin.

"The suit," said Gutman. "The suit. You'll love it, Mr. Rosenfeld. It's perfect."

He disappeared behind the racks of clothes for a minute, then returned with a hanger.

"First the jacket, Mr. Rosenfeld. You, sheynele, go, there. Sit. Sit by the dummy."

"But there's no room," I protested.

"On the floor, sit. Under the dummy, there's space. Just watch the pins."

I sat down Indian style and pulled my skirt over my knees so my underpants wouldn't show. The tailor was right. There were pins everywhere. Pins, pin cushions, scissors, razors, chalk, spools of thread of all colors that must have rolled off the work benches and onto the floor. The smell of stale cigar hung on everything. I sniffed my fingers. They stank as well.

My father put on the jacket and turned in circles in front of the three-way mirror while the tailor, an even shorter man than my father, pushed and fluffed, pinned and coughed while he drew lines across my father's back with his little square chalk.

"Ja, fine," he said. "A few adjustments, it will be perfect."

"One sleeve is shorter than the other," my father said.

"No, Mr. Rosenfeld. I measured. It's because you're pulling your right shoulder up. Relax, and the sleeve will lie right."

"Gutman! I am relaxed. This is the way my shoulder is."

"I'm sorry to disagree, but you need to hang your shoulder down."

My father tilted a little, lifted and lowered his shoulders, stretched his arms, first up, then down and resumed his stance in front of the mirror.

"Gutman, the sleeves are uneven. You always make the right one shorter."

"Nu, okay, okay, gut. I'll adjust. It's nothing. Try now the pants. Behind the mirror you can change."

My father slipped out of sight and the tailor, cigar still planted at the corner of his mouth, launched into a coughing fit so loud and violent I thought he was about to vomit. Instead, he turned to me and called:

"How are you doing there, sheynele? You want some water, maybe?"

"No, thank you," I said. I wanted to leave. I couldn't breathe. The tailor's dummy loomed over me naked and stinking but I was afraid to move in the sea of pins.

"Gutman! Just look at this! A mess. The pants don't fit at all. You made the trousers too short. I swear it, Gutman, this is the last suit you make for me."

My father broke into a torrent of German, a sure sign of trouble ahead. He raised his voice higher and higher until he was full out screaming. My thumb slipped into my mouth. I knew I was too old. I never sucked in public anymore too afraid of the "baby, baby, stick your head in gravy" that other kids would hurl at me if they saw and afraid, too, of the pickled taste of the special cream my mother smeared on my thumb every night to "cure my habit." But the thumb was my best friend, always there for me at the end of my right arm. I burrowed further back under the dummy's shadow, pushing pins away with the bottom of my shoe to clear a larger space for myself. Then I settled in and sucked slowly, hooking my index finger over the bridge of my nose.

"Gutman! Idiot! Moron of a tailor! Incompetent...." My father screamed in German and now the words he used were beyond my vocabulary. Bad words, I knew that much. I sucked harder and harder, curling my tongue around the callous that had grown just above the knuckle of my right thumb. Round and round went my tongue, pressing harder and harder against the scaly skin until the only taste in my mouth was the taste of me. I closed my eyes to shut out the world that smelled of stale cigar and rang with my father's screaming.

I may have fallen asleep. I may have fainted. I may simply have wiped out the memory. The next thing I felt was my father's hand on my arm, tugging the thumb from my mouth.

"Get up, Tessa, and make it snappy. We're leaving. Gutman, two days, verstehen-Sie, two days and the suit had better be perfect."

The tailor emerged from some place behind the mirror. Sweat oozed from every part of him, his head, his neck, the open collar of his shirt. There were dark circles under his arms. The cigar stub was still clamped between his teeth.

I hurried down the stairs behind my father. He always walked very fast, but when he was angry, I could barely keep up with him. When we reached the street below, I stopped to catch my breath while my father raced on ahead of me. Then he must have realized I wasn't at his side. He turned, walked back to where I stood on the sidewalk, shoulders heaving, gulping down fresh air, my chest pumping. He grabbed me by the arm and tugged me alongside him, his fingers hard against my upper arm.

"You're hurting me!" I cried.

"It's so late, the subway will be impossible!"

The subway train was jammed full of sweating people squashed together. We had to stand. My father reached for my hand, but I pulled it away, so he grabbed my shoulder instead digging his fingers into my collarbone.

When we finally reached our apartment, I headed directly for my room.

"What happened to her?" I heard my mother ask.

"Olga, you'll never believe what that Gutman did this time!"

"Misha, you stink of that man's cigar. Go and change."

"Tessa," I heard my mother call down the hallway. "Tessa, change your clothes, and wash up for dinner."

I sat on my bed, heart beating in my ears. I wasn't going to have dinner. I wasn't ever coming out of my room. I would just sit on my bed and breathe and breathe, in and out, out and in, again and again, until my real father came home.

 

 

 

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