Mort Zachter’s childhood revolved around a small shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side known in the neighborhood as “the day-old bread store.” It was a bakery where nothing was baked, owned by his two eccentric uncles who referred to their goods as “the merchandise.” Zachter grew up sleeping in the dinette of a leaking Brooklyn tenement. He lived a classic immigrant story—one of a close-knit, working-class family struggling to make it in America. Only they were rich.
In Dough, Zachter chronicles the life-altering discovery made at age thirty-six that he was heir to several million dollars his bachelor uncles had secretly amassed in stocks and bonds. Although initially elated, Zachter battled bitter memories of the long hours his mother worked at the bakery for no pay. And how could his own parents have kept the secret from him while he was a young married man, working his way through night school? As he cleans out his uncles’ apartment, Zachter discovers clues about their personal lives that raise more questions than they answer. He also finds cake boxes packed with rolls of two-dollar bills and mattresses stuffed with coins.
In prose that is often funny and at times elegiac, Zachter struggles with the legacy of his enigmatic family and the implications of his new-found wealth. Breaking with his family’s workaholic heritage, Zachter abandons his pragmatic accounting career to pursue his lifelong dream of being a writer. And though he may not understand his family, in the end he realizes that forgiveness and acceptance matter most.
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|Publisher:||University of Georgia Press|
|Series:||Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction Series , #9|
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By MORT ZACHTER
The University of Georgia PressCopyright © 2007 Mort Zachter
All right reserved.
Chapter OneREMEMBRANCE 2006
Memory is a net: one finds it full of fish when he takes it from the brook, but a dozen miles of water have run through it without sticking. -Oliver Wendell Holmes
As a child, before I noticed much else, I smelled bread; but, had I known where to look, I would have experienced more.
In 1926, my Russian immigrant grandparents, Max and Lena Wolk, established a bakery at 350 East Ninth Street in New York City. Although my grandparents and their two sons are long gone, the business they started still exists in that very spot. It has changed, as all things do over the course of three generations. Yet, when I look at a 1960s photograph of my uncles, what I remember is that time and that place.
The black-and-white image shows two bespectacled men with short cropped hair and white-collared shirts, displaying bread and cake. Not by chance, my uncle Harry Wolk poses behind the cash register. Despite spending most of his time elsewhere-precisely where is still a point of family contention-he possessed the financial brains of the operation. Uncle Harry was always telling jokes; he was an actor on a stage, and the customers loved him. But in this photo, he doesn't even smile.
His solemn-faced brother, my uncle Joe, is more accurately portrayed in the photo. Uncle Joe never laughed, at least not that I remember, and the customers said he was crusty. A religious man, Uncle Joe moved the merchandise but would have preferred to be praying. The letters CM, HP, and P written on the boxes behind him might as well be hieroglyphics; over the years their meaning has been lost. My mom, their sister, thinks the P might stand for prune Danish, but she's not sure. She was left out of the picture.
Memory is a funny thing, more gray than black and white, and constantly evolving. To illuminate my shadows of recollection, I pieced together this montage from the surprises and stories my uncles left behind.
Let me begin this way: in their entire lives, my uncles never baked a thing.
Chapter TwoAWAKENING 1994
I'm opposed to millionaires, but it would be a mistake to offer me the position. -Mark Twain
On a sweltering August afternoon, the clatter of jackhammers blasted through the open dinette window. I sat in the hallway next to the only phone in my parents' Brooklyn tenement. Their apartment had no air conditioning-never did, never would-and my backside stuck to the vinyl seat cover of the telephone chair. The black rotary phone rang. I looked down at the dusty piece of history and imagined Alexander Graham Bell calling from the great beyond. I picked up the receiver, which felt heavier than I remembered. "Hello."
"Hi, Mr. Zachter, it's Bruce Geary."
The voice was old but quite lively. Mr. Geary sounded Irish, but I had no idea who he was.
"Yes." I was Mr. Zachter, just not the Mr. Zachter he thought he was talking to.
"There is a million dollars in the money-market account. I suggest you buy a million dollars worth of treasuries to maximize the return."
I was hearing things. No one in my family had that kind of dough. The heat had gotten to me. It must be a misunderstanding. A practical joke. I stared at the river of stains running down the walls from the ceiling. When I had lived here as a child, sleeping in the dinette with my head next to the Frigidaire, the upstairs apartment bathroom had leaked. Some things never change.
But some do.
"Hello, Mr. Zachter, are you there?"
"Yes. This is Mort Zachter. My dad is in the hospital. He had surgery for colon cancer and won't be home for a while. Who are you?"
"I'm your uncle's stockbroker, known him forty years. I've been working with your father recently."
At that moment, Uncle Harry, who had moved in with my parents two years before due to his dementia, sat in the living room, slowly sinking into an upholstered chair with broken springs, his feet resting on a well-worn patch of carpet. His uncombed hair was more yellow than gray, his face paper white; his eyeglasses rested on the tip of his nose, but his eyes were vacant. He needed a shave.
"Mr. Geary, did I understand you correctly? Did you say my uncle has a brokerage account with a million dollars in the money-market fund?"
I let that settle in for a minute. I didn't know how to respond. Growing up I had felt poor-not a homeless, hungry, dressed-in-rags poor, but a never-discussed sense that we simply couldn't afford better. Not better than our one-bedroom apartment, not better than vacations in Art Deco dives on Miami's Collins Avenue only in the summer, and not better than view-obstructed seats behind a pole at the old Yankee Stadium. At thirty-six, I knew lives of not-better-than plus a million dollars didn't add up.
Mr. Geary broke the silence. "Would you like me to send you the papers to get signed giving you power of attorney over the account?"
That was a loaded question if ever I heard one. Would I like financial control over an account with a million dollars?
"Yes, Mr. Geary, you could mail us those papers."
Mr. Geary assured me he would mail the papers out that day. I hung up and staggered to the dinette. Uncle Harry slept there now. The ancient Frigidaire that mom had defrosted by hand every few weeks when I was a child had finally been replaced by a self-defrosting GE. I perched on the edge of the bed, across from my old wood-laminate desk. A deep, jagged crack in the side of the table top ran above one of the legs. One false move and the leg would break off. When I was a child the table was whole.
Back then, the first thing I would do when I woke up was look out the dinette window. The early morning sunlight would filter through the coarse green burlap Mom had sewn for a curtain. Below our second-floor window was the cement courtyard where I had played stickball, baseball box-ball, ring-o-levio, and the other street games of Brooklyn. In the fall, the wind would rustle through the leaves of the ailanthus trees that grew in a fenced garden in the back of the courtyard, fertilized by little more than rubbish. Best known as the tree of heaven, the ailanthus thrives in poor neighborhoods; it requires only water and sunlight. I would watch the twisted blades of its seeds spiral down like airplane propellers. I loved to pick up those fallen seeds, split them open at the sticky end, and attach one to the bridge of my nose like a rhino's horn. Yet whenever I plucked one of those bright green leaves and crushed it in my hand, the rank stench it gave off had reminded me of the smell of the monkey's cage at the Prospect Park Zoo.
Mr. Geary's call left me pondering a different shade of green. No one in his right mind establishes a brokerage account and keeps a million dollars in the money-market portion of the account. Although I had never owned a brokerage account in my life, as a CPA I knew that people kept most of their investments in stocks and bonds-not in their money-market account. The whole business made no sense. Not unless Uncle Harry had more millions invested in stocks and bonds.
And that couldn't be the case. My two bachelor uncles had made my parents look rich. Uncle Harry and Uncle Joe had lived like paupers in the Mitchell-Lama housing project on Manhattan's Lower East Side. They drove a twenty-year-old Buick that had been rear-ended and looked like a giant accordion. For years, they frequented the deeply discounted dental clinic at NYU, where interning students treated them. Well into the Reagan administration, they wore suits dating back to the New Deal. Yet they owned a brokerage account with at least a million dollars in it? Could they have made millions selling day-old bread? Were they cheap, crazy, or both?
There was no one to ask. Uncle Harry could no longer tell a knife from a fork, Uncle Joe was dead, Dad was hospitalized, and Mom doled out information as if it were sugar and the world were in a diabetic coma. If I wanted answers, I would have to unearth them myself.
But I knew where to start. Earlier that day, when Mom and I had visited Dad in the hospital, he had asked me to empty Uncle Harry's post-office box.
"Why does Uncle Harry need a post-office box?" I had asked, since it was the first time I had ever heard of my uncles having one. Mom yelled at me not to ask so many questions. Dad said that Uncle Harry got a lot of mail.
Now, sitting on my old bed, I watched Mom, Brillo pad in hand, standing at the kitchen sink with her back to me. Her shoulder-length gray hair slowly swayed as she scrubbed the frying pan she had used to make Uncle Harry lunch. The kitchen had no exhaust fan, and the air was still heavy with the odor of onions from the tuna fish cakes she had deep fried. I asked her for the keys to Uncle Harry's post-office box.
She dried her hands on the white dish towel, neatly folded it, placed it on the counter adjacent to the sink, and led me to the night table next to my dad's side of their double bed. She opened the top drawer. Inside, a plastic Baggie contained Uncle Harry's keys, a black yarmulke, and the Mourner's Kaddish on a laminated card from a funeral home on Flatbush Avenue. Dad had left the bag for me in case he died. I removed only the keys as the pneumatic drilling started again.
Back in the dinette, I sat down on my old bed at the end closest to the window and slid back the faded burlap curtain. On that summer day in 1994, the courtyard was in a shambles. A demolition crew chopped away at the concrete with their drills. Ripped from its supports, the garden fence lay on its side in the dirt next to the felled ailanthus trees-my trees of heaven.
In the place where I used to play and dream and pretend, they were building a parking lot.
Chapter ThreeWAITING FOR COHN 1947
The Forecast for December 26, 1947, from the United States Weather Bureau NEW YORK CITY AND VICINITY-Cloudy today with occasional snow ending this afternoon, followed by partial clearing, highest temperature near forty.
The city that never sleeps slept. At 3:20 a.m., on December 26, 1947, snow flurries provided a preview of coming attractions, but no one noticed. I certainly didn't. My mom hadn't met my dad yet, and I wasn't born until 1958. But I've heard Mom tell the story of that day so many times that family legend and New York City history have become one.
The snowfall officially began at 5:25 a.m. At 7:00 a.m., Uncle Joe left his footprints in the two inches of powdery snow that already covered the sidewalk in front of the Store.
My family always referred to the bakery as the Store. None of them ever called it by its legal name, The Ninth Street Bakery, or by a name I found, decades later, on some long-forgotten paperwork, Joe's Cut-Rate Bakery. The Store was a commissioned bakery; that meant nothing was baked on the premises. Instead, my uncles purchased bread and cake from wholesale bakeries in Brooklyn like Pechter's and then sold it over the counter in the Store or to restaurants in Manhattan. Customers called the bakery "the day-old bread store."
Uncle Joe removed the copper-colored Yale padlocks and pushed the front gate open. It was a powdery snow, the kind that was easy to push off your sidewalk provided there was not much accumulation. Based on the forecast, Uncle Joe figured he would shovel in the afternoon when it stopped snowing. Inside, he coerced the Store's good-for-nothing heater into action, removed his coffee from a paper bag, took the lid off, and watched the steam rise. Yesterday was Christmas. Only one bakery in the largely Ukrainian neighborhood had been open, and it had been a busy afternoon at the Store. Customers had left with cake and dinner rolls, but no deliveries had arrived.
Shortly after World War I, my grandparents had established the bakery further downtown on Allen Street. They had led a life of long hours, minuscule profits, and perishable inventory. In the early twentieth century, this had been a common way for immigrants to gain their financial independence, especially those who wanted to stay out of the sweatshops made infamous by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
Many of the wholesale bakeries that supplied the Store used independent contractors to deliver the breads and cakes. But on that particular snowy morning in 1947, the shelves were empty, except for a few rum-and-brandy-flavored fruitcakes. Uncle Joe was untroubled. To him, fruitcakes got better with age, and customers were never a problem at the Store. The question was merchandise, which meant the bread and cake once it was in the Store ready for sale to customers. Who was going to deliver stuff, their name for the bread and cake before it arrived, on a day like this? A Friday, the day after Christmas, children off from school, the weather cold and bleak, beds snug and warm.
Uncle Joe sat on the cold white tiles of the display window shelf, sipped the sugarless black coffee he favored, stared out at the snow, and waited for the deliveries he was certain would come when the snow stopped. And it had to stop soon. In Uncle Joe's superstitious mind, snowstorms arrived in New York only after New Year's Day. He was convinced the weather was familiar with the major holidays and acted accordingly. No matter the actual weather, Uncle Joe started to wear short-sleeved shirts on Memorial Day and went back to flannel long-sleeved shirts on Labor Day.
Mom and Uncle Harry drifted in at 10:00 a.m. My mom still lived with her mother and two brothers in the house where she had grown up on Hegeman Avenue, in the East New York section of Brooklyn. After their five-block walk from the Fourteenth Street subway station, their hats and the shoulders of their coats wore a layer of snow that needed brushing off.
Ten years before, my grandfather Max had died of a heart attack in his sleep. What I know of Max comes from my mom's meager recollections. Unfortunately, like so many other people, I had no interest in family history until late in the day, when darkness had already dimmed the memories of those still alive to ask.
"Your grandfather was tall," Mom would say, though she could never say exactly how tall. "He smoked a lot. And he once sold a formula for yeast to Fleischmann's. That's how he got the money to start the Store. He had a terrific memory; he never wrote anything down."
At the time of Max's death, Uncle Joe was thirty-three and already worked in the Store full-time. But when my grandparents had immigrated to America in 1913, Uncle Joe had been nine and already steeped in the shtetl life of strict Shabbat observance and Torah study. This explains why the only place I ever saw him truly happy was in synagogue.
Uncle Harry, on the other hand, didn't know from Torah. He was a business man. When Max died, Uncle Harry was twenty-six and still working his way through college. It would take him ten years of perseverance and a transfer from City College to the then less-demanding NYU School of Commerce to earn his accounting degree.
When her father died, my twenty-one-year-old American-born mom had already graduated from tuition-free Hunter College and was teaching elementary school full-time. Max's death diverted Mom from her chosen career. She was forced to work in the Store full-time.
My grandmother Lena died in 1961. An older cousin on my father's side of the family told me Lena was the sweetest woman he had ever met-but a lousy cook. To my mom, Lena was a capable woman: "She could do anything. She even drove a tractor in the old country." Given the time period, and their economic struggles in the Pale of Settlement (the area in czarist Russia where Jews were forced to live), the tractor must have been horse-drawn.
Outside the Store, a horse and buggy would have been most efficient on that snowy day. Seven inches of white powder had fallen in less than five hours. A car clanked as it snaked down the block, the metallic sound of its chained tires muffled by the snow.
"What do you think?" Uncle Joe said. "It can't keep up like this much longer."
"It's snowing very hard," Uncle Harry said.
"Do you think anyone will deliver today?" Mom asked.
Harry said, "Maybe Cohn-he's crazy enough to work in this weather."
"So why are we here?"
"Like I said, Helen, only the meshuggeners."
According to the New York Times, Benjamin Parry, the U.S. Weather Bureau's chief meteorologist in New York City, noted the remarkable rate of the snowfall that morning; it was all snow with virtually no wind. So, according to him, this was not a blizzard, which, he said, was a snowstorm accompanied by high winds and zero or subzero temperatures. Lay observers called it a snow cloudburst. Descriptions did not matter. Visibility vanished. When Mom and her brothers peered through the display windows, they could barely see the buildings across the street.
Excerpted from DOUGH by MORT ZACHTER Copyright © 2007 by Mort Zachter. Excerpted by permission.
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