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By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
Max at the Age of Twelve
As with most of those who enter this world, Max Britsky did so violently and unwillingly, and once life had been smacked into his small red behind, he screamed out his anger and resentment with a voice and strength that surprised Dr Segal, who held him upside down by his two small feet.
'I'll be damned,' Dr Segal said under his breath. 'Scrawny little beggar, but full of life. Can't be an ounce over six pounds, but by golly, he's alive.'
The birth had taken place in Abraham Britsky's apartment on Henry Street, on the Lower East Side of New York City, on the fifteenth day of November in 1879. It was before the time when most children would be born in hospitals, and the mother, Max's mother, Sarah Britsky, lay in her bed, staring at the fuzzy vision of a small, froglike bit of pink and red flesh dangling from Dr Segal's hand by its heels, her first son. Sarah Britsky was not yet twenty-three. When not exhausted, colorless, sweating, splattered with blood, and still trembling in the aftermath of having given birth, she was a reasonably attractive young woman, with regular features and a good head of thick brown hair. Her husband, Abe, was five years older, much more frightened than she. When he was at work – which, barring today, was six days a week – he was a cutter in a garment factory, a sweatshop which paid him seven dollars a week for a twelve-hour day.
Max was his first child, but Abe Britsky was a virile man, and after Max had blundered into existence, brothers and sisters appeared almost by cosmic schedule. Freida was born in 1880; twelve months later, a stillbirth died unnamed. Reuben appeared in 1883, and somewhat less than three years after, in 1886, Sheila saw the light of day. Esther was born in 1888, and fourteen months later, in 1889, Benjamin Britsky joined the burgeoning population of the United States.
While the country had territory in abundance, the tiny cold-water flat on Henry Street was not expandable. It had two closet-sized bedrooms, a small living room, a small dining room; and a small kitchen. Since the rooms were lined up, one behind the other, with no taste of the outside except a narrow, dark airshaft, it was called a railroad flat, even as it was called a cold-water flat because the landlord supplied no hot water. For a year after the birth of his sixth child, Abe Britsky vowed that he would ask for a raise, demand a raise, plead for a raise; but alas, all of his virility seemed to repose in his gonads, and each time he approached his boss, his courage failed him. Taking the one alternative that appeared reasonable to him and within his powers, he found a Sunday job as deckhand and general cleaning man on the Pennsylvania Railroad ferry to New Jersey; but working seven days a week proved too much for his already exhausted constitution, and at the age of forty, he dropped dead at work, a victim of a massive coronary thrombosis.
Max was approaching his twelfth year when his father died, leaving Sarah Britsky with six small children, a railroad flat on Henry Street, and twelve dollars and twenty cents in the brown jug in the kitchen, which acted as the Britsky bank. Since the Britsky store of savings had passed the fifty-dollar mark only once since Max's birth and was frequently as low as two dollars, a net worth of twelve dollars was not unusual. Both Abe and Sarah Brifsky were immigrants, he from Lithuania, she from Poland, both of them launched across the sea and into the New World through the collective energies of families that had remained behind. Through the years, there had been a lingering hope that other members of their families would eventually join them, but since this did not come about, the hope finally faded. When Abe died, the Synagogue Beth Sholom raised the money for a simple funeral, then Sarah went home with her children and pondered whether she should kill herself. There was, in that time, no relief, no social welfare, no aid to the poor except for private charities, and what private charities touched the Lower East Side of New York City were outside Sarah's world. So, still a bit short of his twelfth year, Max Britsky became the head of a household of seven, their pillar of life and hope.
Max accepted his role. While his mother wept and shrieked her grief, terrifying her five younger children, Max acted. He was in the sixth grade at the public school on East Broadway, and he silently, subjectively, terminated his schooling. He conveyed his decision to his mother tersely, thus: 'It'll be all right.'
'You're telling me!' Sarah cried. 'I'm dying and you're telling me it'll be all right!'
She said this in Yiddish, her English still poor and not to be attempted under such great emotional stress, and then she slapped Max. That was to be expected. If her love for a man, now departed, who had kept her pregnant for most of the past thirteen years was somewhat less than heartfelt, the enormity of the tragedy she now faced could not be exaggerated, and the effrontery of this skinny twelve-year-old turned grief into anger. In his own way, Max understood this and accepted the blow without resentment.
Years afterward, Max's life would become the subject of a great deal of social and artistic inquiry, but none of it took into account the factors that made him – the factors that made the child, who became the father of the man. The man, in later years, was often accused of dishonesty, but he was not dishonest and neither was he a thief. The child was once a thief, if one excludes pilfering, but a real thief only on a single occasion. The pilfering consisted of following the milk wagon, in the small hours of the morning, in the wealthy neighborhoods around Gramercy Park, in the north, since milk deliveries hardly abounded in the environs of Henry Street, and the two or three quarts of milk that followed such excursions were looked upon bitterly by Sarah but accepted silently. Max's single venture into actual larceny was greeted with more vocal anger.
It happened the day after his father's funeral, the day he told his mother that things would be all right, the day he faced the necessity of immediate cash. There was some food in the apartment, brought there by people from the synagogue who had a vague tribal affiliation but were otherwise strangers, for Abe Britsky had possessed neither a social nor a religious life worth mentioning. There was bread and cheese and a bag of potatoes and a salami, but with the normal hunger of the Britsky family, it was not much more than a day's ration. And there was no cash. Max Britsky was a realist, and while at his age he did not have too many courses of action open to him, he was able to face those that represented a part of his reality. He did his thinking on the front stoop of the tenement that housed his family, a small, skinny boy, with a long, narrow head, a sharp nose, a wide full-lipped mouth and pale blue eyes. His light brown hair covered his ears in a shaggy mop. His shoes were worn to holes at the toes and at the soles. His stockings were loose and torn, his short knickers worn through at the knees, and a dirty, worn shirt and a ragged sweater completed his costume.
It was late September, so he did not yet have to confront winter weather, an uneasy future since his last year's coat had already been made over for his sister Freida. But one thing at a time and one day at a time. Today he required cash for survival, and having considered the alternatives, Max moved into action.
It is about a mile and a half from the tenements of Henry Street to the shadowed canyons of the financial district, which lie to the south. Max might have paraphrased a later thief, who explained that he robbed banks because that's where the money was, and in this single instance of overt crime, Max moved into the financial district for much the same reason, his quarry a stout man with a protruding belly. While such might be found in the vicinity of Henry Street, ghetto bellies did not support watches and heavy gold watch chains. At the corner of Pine and Nassau, Max found an appropriate belly, enclosed by a white damask vest and crossed by a heavy gold watch chain of indisputable quality. The owner of this gold chain was engaged in deep conversation with another gentleman, and neither of them noticed the skinny kid who moved up to them, grabbed the gold chain with all his ten fingers, then yanked. The vest snapped open, buttons flying, the buttonhole which held the chain tore through, and the heavy pocket watch at the end of the chain bounced out of the stout man's vest pocket. Before either of the men could gather their wits and begin to shout, 'Stop thief!' Max was off into the press of people.
The street was his element, street nourished, street wise, and when the cry of 'Stop thief!' finally did come, he was a block away, cutting into an alley. A man running attracts a crowd; a boy running attracts no one, and Max ran all the way to Moe Splenski's hock shop on Rivington Street. He had been there before with brass fittings, doorknobs, hinges, and brackets dug out of the dump on South Street, but never with anything worth more than ten cents. The watch and chain Max pushed through the wire grille to Splenski were worth a good deal more than ten cents. Splenski examined it closely, snapped open the watch cover, moved the hands, and then offered Max two dollars.
'Go fuck yourself,' Max said. 'My father died yesterday. My mother's got six kids. I want twenty bucks.' It embraced the entire situation, and Splenski, studying the boy's cold blue eyes, stroked his heard and nodded.
'Ten dollars,' Splenski said. The watch and chain were worth at least a hundred.
'Gimme it,' Max said, reaching.
Splenski pushed the watch and chain out of reach. 'Your father died yesterday?'
'Like I said, go fuck yourself.'
'Suppose I call the cops?'
'Call them. Tell them I want to hock my father's watch. Then tell them where the other merchandise comes from.'
'You're a snotty kid.'
'Yeah. Give it to me in one-dollar bills, all of it in one-dollar bills. And I know how to count.'
As of this day and this moment, school was in the past; Max was now in the business of survival, and being in that business, he recognised the fact that job opportunities were few and far between for a twelve-year-old, nor would any of them pay what would be needed to support a family of seven people, six of them children blessed with healthy appetites. Max had to be an independent operator, and as such he required capital. The result was that when he returned to the Britsky flat, he placed only eighteen dollars on the table in front of his grieving mother, retaining two dollars for himself.
'What's this?' Sarah demanded.
'That son of a bitch Himmelman, he been here yet?' Himmelman was their landlord.
'Don't use dirty language!' Sarah exclaimed..
'He been here? That's all I'm asking.'
'So what did he say?' Max asked her.
'So what did he say – so what did he say!' she cried angrily, forgetting that she was talking to a twelve-year-old boy and talking to him as she might have talked to her husband, in a fierce, almost threatening whine. 'What should he say, that prince of evil? Tomorrow the rent is due. Pay the rent or get out. He smells death like a dog smells filth. They say he lives uptown with the fancy rich Jews, but he was down here knocking on my door before poor Abe was cold in his grave. He'll turn us out on the street!' she cried, her voice rising.
Little Benny Britsky, one year and a half in age, lay in the crib that had come down from birth to birth. The four remaining Britsky children stood in the kitchen, partaking of the awful drama that had taken them up into itself, watching, listening, trying to comprehend the message of doomsday.
Max pointed to the money. 'Eighteen dollars,' he said. 'You got nine dollars to pay the rent and you got nine dollars for food. So nobody ain't going to kick us out into the street.'
'Where did you get this?' she asked, handling the money.
'What's the difference? I got it.'
'You little bum, you stole it!' And she slapped him, but there was no force in the slap.
'We won't starve,' Max said, 'and nobody throws us out into the street.'
There have been worse declarations of intent.
It was a conceit of Max to declare in later years that he had been weaned on show business and that it was in his blood. The small operation he embarked on, along with other independent enterprises, had only a tenuous connection with show business, but like others of his enterprises, it partook of imagination. Max thought of things that escaped others. But in his case, imagination was narrowed and directed with the intensity of a laser beam. If Max had been put to introspection and forced to declare why he should have accepted the responsibility for the survival of the seven lives that constituted the Britsky family, he would have been unable to come up with an answer. But the question was not put to him, not by another and not by himself.
Show business, on the other hand, thrived in New York City in the year of 1891. There were, aside from the English-speaking theatre, four Yiddish companies, two German companies, an Italian company, and a Czech company. The czar's expulsion of the Yiddish theatre from his realm a few years before had led to a veritable explosion of Yiddish drama on the Lower East Side. In the English language, over forty theatres thrived on a succession of bad plays, interspersed now and then by the work of Shaw, Ibsen, Barrie, and Shakespeare as well as Strindberg, Hardy, and other accomplished Europeans. The age of the native American theatre was still in the future, but the love of and obsession with theatre was very much a part of the time. New Yorkers adored the theatre. Everyone who could put the price of a ticket together went to the theatre at one time or another – except for European-born shopkeepers, whose long hours and difficulties with the language made them indifferent to the English-speaking theatre.
Of this, Max was well aware, and to this end he had preserved his capital of two dollars. Each morning after his father's death, Max left the house at half-past six, his eight-year-old brother Ruby tagging along with him. They were the two Britsky children old enough to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, which the son repeats each morning and each evening for a year after his father's death. Max made Ruby his surrogate, dropping him at the door to the synagogue with the observation that nobody yet ate a prayer.
They ate bagels, however, the hard, indigestible ring-shaped pieces of bread that had been brought to America in the eighteen-seventies by the Eastern European Jewish immigrants; and since it was still too early in the morning for Max to embark on what would be remembered as his entrance into show business, he went instead to Kurtz's bagel factory on Broome Street. He had been there once before on a Sunday morning with Shutzie Levine, seventeen and tolerating Max as an assistant whom he paid off with ten cents for the morning's work. The East Side sweatshops worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, giving the Jewish workers only one day off, Saturday, and since Shutzie was still in high school, Sunday was the only day he could ply the trade, namely, the sale of hot bagels to the workers.
Max, whose schooling was in the past, entered the business on a weekday. He moved into the bakery almost unnoticed, savoring the smells hungrily, watching the bakers mold the bagels in one swift yet intricate motion, dropping them then into the pots of boiling water, from whence they were fished out and thrust into the oven to be baked to a golden brown.
Finally, someone noticed him and asked him what he wanted.
'One hundred bagels,' Max said, flattening a dollar bill on the counter.
'Why ain't you in school?'
The whole world of adulthood was nosy, officious, and suspicious. Storekeepers were walking into the place and walking out with huge bags of bagels. No one questioned them. Their money was sufficient.
'School don't open until nine o'clock.'
At Stylish Shirtwaists, Inc., on East Broadway, it was the same thing. A fat janitor, sitting at the door of the old loft building, demanded to know why Max wasn't in school.
Unspoken, Max thought, Up yours, you old shithead. Aloud, he poured out the tale of his dead father and the many mouths to feed.
Excerpted from Max by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1982 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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