It’s the middle of the Great Depression and Morris Katz and his cousin Albert are broke. The self-declared “best humpers in St. Paul,” they haven’t quite figured out how to make their talents pay. But that’s all about to change when they head off to college on a mission from Morris’s mother to find rich, unattractive Jewish girls to marry.
The boys arrive on campus armed with a secret weapon: the poetry of Morris’s cousin Crip, a stay-at-home genius who sublimates his sex drive into song. Within a day, Morris is courting Celeste Zimmerman, the frumpy heir to a movie theater franchise. But then an Irish Catholic beauty falls under the spell of Crip’s verse and goes gaga over Morris. She thinks he’s a Jewish-Communist revolutionary poet, and who is he to tell her otherwise? But is it happiness Morris truly wants, or money? And what will Mama Katz say?
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Potatoes Are Cheaper
By Max Shulman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1971 Max Shulman
All rights reserved.
Oh, sure, potatoes were cheaper all right, and so were tomatoes, just like Eddie Cantor kept singing on the radio, but who the hell had money to buy any except maybe Eddie Cantor?
But finally, thank God, we got a break. On March the 14th, 1936, Pa went down to the St. Paul public library just like he did every day as usual. Not that he was such a great reader; in fact he could hardly read at all, not English anyhow, except maybe for eviction and foreclosure notices. He could read Yiddish all right, but that didn't help because there were no Yiddish books in the St. Paul public library. But Pa went every day anyhow. What else could he do? He didn't have a job to go to, and if he stayed home Ma would give him the whammy all day long. So where else could he find that was (a) warm; and (b) free?
So on this March the 14th, 1936, we're talking about, Pa started walking into the library as usual, but he never got inside because he slipped on an icy step and fractured his tailbone. Or as my mother told the whole neighborhood, "He fell and broke his ass, my smart husband."
Naturally we sued the city. My cousin Herbie who got out of law school five years ago took the case — his first case, as it happened. But he was confident. "Don't worry, Aunt Pearl," he told my mother. "We got 'em dead to rights. You'll collect fifty thousand minimum."
Herbie figured a little high. The actual settlement came to $125 of which the doctor grabbed twenty. Still and all, it was the biggest chunk of money we'd seen since my father took up unemployment back in 1929, and we had a family conference at five o'clock one evening to decide what to do with it.
The reason the conference was at five o'clock was that nobody talks in my house after 6 P.M. That's radio time. You never met a radio nut like my mother. I'll tell you how far it goes. Not only does she stay glued to the set every single night, but at sundown each Friday when she lights the candles, she always includes blessings for Rudy Vallee, Stoopnagle and Budd, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Wallington, Jessica Dragonette, Joe Penner and — can you believe this? — Father Coughlin!
"Ma," I once asked her, "how can you say a blessing for Father Coughlin? He's an anti-Semite."
"So who's not?" Ma said.
She had me there.
But to get back to our family conference, "So who got a suggestion?" said Ma.
Pa stepped forward. Pa used to be a house painter back in the olden days when he was working and this is what he suggested: He'd take the hundred dollars and get his Plymouth back from the finance company. Then he'd drive around St. Paul looking for houses that needed painting and when he found one he'd try to sell the people a paint job.
Ma gave him a look. "Very intelligent," she said. "But I got a question. When a house needs painting, it's because they ain't got money to paint. So how they gonna pay you, Dr. I.Q.?"
Pa went into his patented sulk. That was his speciality: injured silence. Whenever Ma gave him the whammy, he just clammed up. Since Ma gave him the whammy most of the time, he spent most of the time clammed up. I was nearly eleven before I found out he wasn't deaf and dumb.
Now my sister Libbie stepped forward. Libbie was the one in the family who worked. She knocked down fourteen a week as assistant manager in kitchenwares at Monkey Ward of which Ma let her keep two-fifty for carfare and lunch. I only worked one day a week myself, Saturdays at the Cut Price Grocery, but I came out almost as well as Libbie. They paid me three dollars for the day, but I told Ma I only got two so she only took away one.
Libbie was twenty-four, four years older than me, but we were pretty good buddies all the same. She slipped me a dime every so often, and I kept telling her she looked like Sylvia Sidney which made her very happy. It was true in a way; she was short and hairy and cried a lot.
Anyhow, Libbie stepped forward and said, "Mother, I think I should have the money." Libbie was the only one who called Ma "Mother" and Pa "Father." She also wore white gloves every chance she got and spoke with a broad a when she didn't forget. If the Prince of Wales happened to wander into Monkey Ward some day, Libbie meant to be ready.
"I think I should have the money," said Libbie, "so I can buy some decent clothes and get invited to nice parties and meet the right kind of people."
Ma gave Libbie a look. "Very intelligent," said Ma. "But I got a question. Who among your shlepper friends is gonna invite you to a nice party?"
Libbie couldn't think of an answer so naturally she started in crying. Ma turned to me next. "Well, breadwinner," she said, "I suppose you think you should have the money too?"
"As a matter of fact, I do," I said.
"This is gonna be good," said Ma. "All right, what will you do with the money?"
"This is gonna be better than you think," I said. "I will go to college."
What a bombshell! College? Who ever heard of such a thing? First of all, I was twenty years old and already two years out of high school. Second, the highest mark I ever got in high school was a B-minus and that was in tin shop. And third, even if you were a genius and came out of college with a lawyer degree or a doctor degree you'd still starve to death these days like everybody else.
They gave me a look, all of them, not just Ma, but Pa and Libbie too. They just stood and stared at me like they couldn't imagine where in the world I got such a nutty idea. To tell you the truth, it was not my idea. It was my cousin Albert's and he sprang it on me a couple of weeks earlier at the Sel-Dale Rec which I'll explain.
The Sel-Dale Rec is this pool hall on the corner of Selby and Dale where all the neighborhood guys hung out at night except of course on weekends when everybody was out prowling for nookie. Well, on the night I'm talking about, I walked into the Sel-Dale after supper as usual, and all the regulars were there, including my cousin Herbie, the prominent attorney who you know; my cousin Reuben who was thirty-five years old and still had a paper route; my cousin Willard who was going to be a millionaire any minute from chain letters; my cousin Pisher who got kicked out of the CCC for bedwetting; my cousin Bow-Wow who made a shaky living stealing dogs for the University medical school; my cousin August who came in seventy-eighth in a marathon dance last year; my cousin Kermit who ran the towel counter at the Y, the only fairy as far as I know in the entire family; and my cousin Albert.
And, of course, a lot of neighborhood guys who not only were not my cousins, but they weren't even Jewish. Selby Avenue got just about any nationality you can name, but we all live together with no trouble because we all got these two things in common: horniness and unemployment.
Anyhow, I walked into the Sel-Dale and everybody looked up hopefully for a minute thinking it might be a live one, but it was only me so they all turned away. Except my cousin Albert. He jumped to his feet, real excited. "Morris!" he hollered. "Where you been? I got to talk to you important!"
"So talk," I said.
"No. It's private," he said and dragged me to a little booth in the back. It was no problem for Albert to drag me because he was a bull. He weighed 220 pounds and his shoulders were so wide that Foreman and Clark couldn't fit him. He had to have his suits tailor-made which is why he didn't have any. With that fantastic strength of his, Albert always wanted to be a professional fighter, but he was never able to find a manager willing to handle a heavyweight five feet one inch tall. So Albert worked a couple days a week unloading lettuce at Di Palma's produce house.
(Shortness, by the way, runs in my family. In fact, I got three grown cousins who can stand up straight under a card table. I myself at five feet six am known as the Gary Cooper of the family.)
But about Albert. He was, as I said, a bull and he looked like Nat Pendleton standing in a hole. But behind that tiny forehead was the busiest brain in St. Paul. He was all the time planning, scheming, plotting, driving, burning with ambition to make it. And he didn't just talk; he did. Like for instance the rest of us were always dreaming about how nice it would be to have a car. Well, Albert didn't dream. You know what he did? He made a car! It was part Ford, part Hudson, and part Maytag, but by God, it ran!
"All right, Albert," I said when we got seated in the booth in the back of the Sel-Dale, "what's so important?"
"Morris," he said and he was almost shaking with excitement, "I figured out why we're not making it. You know why? Because we are not using our assets."
This puzzled me. I quickly run through our assets in my mind, and all I could come up with was Albert's Maytag Six and the Ingersoll pocket-watch I got for high-school graduation. "What assets?" I said.
"Think," said Albert. "What do we do better than anybody?"
"Hump," I said.
"Absolutely," said Albert. "We are no question the best humpers in the whole St. Paul. I am Number One and you are Number Two."
"Well, yes," I said, "but you rape most of yours. I don't think that should count."
It was true what I said. Not that Albert meant to rape them; it's just that he was so fantastically strong they usually fainted from a simple hug.
As for my own humping record, it was — I got to say it — incredible. I tell you this without bragging because I honestly can't take any credit. All that I was I owed to my cousin Crip; without him I would have been nothing.
I started chasing poon at fourteen like everybody else, and I got to admit that for the first year and a half all I accomplished was nutstrain. Then one day, just by chance, I was visiting my cousin Crip and all of a sudden I had the key.
Crip's real name actually was Walter, but he was crippled so much of the time that people naturally called him Crip, including his mother, my Aunt Ida. What he had was this calcium problem, either too much or too little, I'm not sure. Anyhow, his bones broke so easy you could hardly believe it. I mean all you had to do was give him an ordinary handshake and — crunch! — five busted fingers. If he sat down too fast in a wooden chair — wham! — the pelvis. When he went to bed he had to sleep flat on his back with his arms at his sides because if he turned over during the night, his arms would snap like chicken wings.
Naturally Aunt Ida took him to every doctor in the state of Minnesota and even to Chicago. The doctors were always happy to see him because at the very least he was good for an article in the medical journal, but nobody could figure out what to do. So Aunt Ida finally gave up and kept Crip at home on a goosedown sofa.
Crip was my age, twenty, but he'd never been to school. They tried sending him for a while when he was little, but it was no good. He never once came home without something busted. One time in kindergarten, I remember, a girl named Emily Dow tossed him a beanbag and caved in his chest.
So they educated him at home. They got him a slew of books and they just let him go ahead at his own pace. Believe me, it worked out a lot better than if they'd sent him to school. I mean he was reading Shakespeare when the rest of us were still farting around with The Little Engine That Could. By the time he was twelve he was so well read that he started writing things of his own — poems, mostly, and they were great. He wanted to compose music too but he knew he dassn't because if he ever touched a piano it was good-by, fingers.
Well, you'd think a guy with bones like pretzels would be fairly gloomy, but not Crip. In fact I never met anyone happier. The bones didn't bother him because to tell the truth he never even felt it when they broke. But more important, he was doing what he liked best in the whole world, reading and writing. He would rave about a new book the way you and I would rave about a new broad, and he enjoyed writing even more than reading, especially writing poetry. Every time I came over he could hardly wait to show me his newest poem, and when I told him how much I liked it — and I always did — he'd grin and blush and wiggle all over with pleasure, except of course the parts that were in a cast.
Only once did I see Crip unhappy for any length of time. That was when he was fourteen and started getting horny. He wanted to get laid something awful, but naturally he couldn't. For him this would have been like jumping off the Foshay Tower. He suffered for almost a whole year, but finally he sublimated his sex-drive into poetry. (That's Crip's word: "sublimated." So is "sexdrive.") What he meant was instead of shagging girls, which he couldn't, he wrote these passionate love poems, which he could. He made up a whole bunch of romances with imaginary girls, all of them gorgeous, willing, and able. Why not? If you're inventing girls, you might as well do it right.
The poems were fantastic. Somehow he was able to make them sound filthy and beautiful at the same time. The language was perfectly clean, and the sentiments were very high-tone, but all the same, just listening to them you'd get a bone on. I mean these poems were such hot stuff that Crip had to tear them up when he finished them. He couldn't leave them around the house because Aunt Ida would throw a fit if she ever found them.
I'll give you an example in a minute, but first let me tell you how I happened by chance to get the key to a rich, wholesome sex life from Crip.
I was fifteen and a half at the time, and I was trying to stick it in a girl named Elaine Gonder at Central High. I was getting nowheres with Elaine, which wouldn't have bothered me too much — after all, I'd been striking out with everyone else too — but I knew for a fact that Duncan McCarthy and Galen Peterson had both gotten in. This wasn't just hearsay; it so happened I was looking over the transom in the locker room when each of them scored.
But I kept getting shut out with Elaine. I tried everything short of an ether cone, and the answer was always the same: no. "You don't love me," Elaine kept saying.
"Yes, I do," I hollered. "I am crazy about you, I swear on my mother!"
She wouldn't believe me.
Well, one day during the course of this Elaine fiasco I was visiting my cousin Crip and, as usual, he read me his latest love poem. He always had names for these imaginary girls he was writing about, and the title of the poem was always the name of the girl — To Barbara, for instance, or To Beverly, or To Muriel. The one he read me this day was called To Elaine and my ears perked up right away. The poem went like this:
Elaine, Elaine, oh sweet and fair,
Thy creamy skin, thy gleamy hair,
Thy marble brow, thy sapphire eyes,
Thy secrets I can but surmise.
Oh, where hast thou thy treasure hid?
Oh, dare I hope to ope the lid?
Oh, let me ope it once, Elaine,
Then let me ope it once again!
Well, I jumped straight up in the air. "Crip," I yelled, "don't tear up this poem. Give it to me."
"What for?" said Crip.
I told him.
He gave a frown. "You mean you're going to tell this broad that you wrote the poem?" he said.
I gave a frown. "It's okay, isn't it?" I said.
He gave a brave smile. "Sure, Morris," he said.
"Thanks, Crip," I said.
"Forget it," he said. "What are cousins for?"
I wanted to hug him then, but I knew better. "There's one more thing, Crip," I said. "The poem says sapphire eyes. That means blue, don't it?"
"So?" he said.
"So could you change it?" I said. "This broad's got brown eyes."
"Be glad to," said Crip. "What shade brown would you say they were?"
"Kind of liver colored," I said.
He shook his head. "Not good," he said. Then he thought for a while — not more than ten seconds — and came up with russet. That's how fast Crip could write poetry.
The next day I caught Elaine in the cafeteria at Central. "So I don't love you, huh?" I said. "Well, how do you like them apples?" I flang the poem down in front of her and walked away.
Within five minutes she was running around school like a crazy woman looking for me. Do I have to tell you what happened when she found me?
From that day on Crip was my secret weapon. Not, mind you, that I used him all the time; in fact, not even most of the time. Because most of the time the action was with Swedish and Finnish housemaids who came to St. Paul direct from farms up in northern Minnesota and, believe me, when you are trying to unhook the garters on a 180-pound squarehead who never went past the third grade, what you need is two extra arms, not poetry.
Excerpted from Potatoes Are Cheaper by Max Shulman. Copyright © 1971 Max Shulman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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