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The Rigoletto of Remsen Avenue



East 89th, 1968:
“The Rigoletto of Remsen Avenue”

The sky was just beginning to show its early morning colors when Harry and Flo unlocked the front door of the candy store on the corner of Remsen Avenue and Avenue B and carried the waiting bundles of newspapers inside. Their daily routine was well established after more than a dozen years in the store, and it wasn’t much different from the one they had followed for six years before that in the old place in Queens. They went about their tasks with silent efficiency. Harry dumped the bundled papers on the newsstand while Flo went behind the counter, switching on the lights and ceiling fans and setting up for the breakfast rush. She filled the large coffee urn with water and started it perking. She lit the grill and the deep fryer. Milk was poured into serving pitchers; the sugar, salt, and pepper shakers refilled. Eggs, bacon, butter, margarine, sliced ham, and American cheese were pulled from the refrigerator and arranged on the preparation countertop next to the grill.


It was Harry’s job to snip the wires around the newspapers and stack them on the newsstand on the wall opposite the cash register. The number 17 Remsen Avenue bus stopped outside their door so the first customers of the day appeared minutes after the lights blinked on, taking their copies of the New York Daily News, Post, and Times from the stacks in Harry’s hands and dropping their coins in the cigar box next to the papers.


The papers finished, Harry would tie a clean, white apron around his ample stomach and join his wife behind the counter. Flo sold cigarettes and gum and served up take out containers of hot coffee and chit-chat to their early bird patrons. Harry, his back to them at the prep station, silently chopped onions and green peppers and sliced tomatoes. He responded to greetings from the regulars with a wave of his cleaver and a grunt. Harry saved speaking for the important things.


One of those was arguing with his suppliers.


“So much?” Harry would slap at whatever invoice had just been handed him disdainfully with his fingertips, his grunted words heavily accented and pushed through the side of his mouth from behind clenched teeth. “You try rob me?”


“Yeah, Harry,” said Esposito, the driver who delivered the fresh Kaiser rolls and breads, holding out his hand for payment. “That’s it. This’s a gun. Stick ‘em up.”


“Why you gotta bust my balls like this, Harry?” said Goldman the meat man.


“Like I got time for your bullshit?” said Williams the candy supplier.


“Hey, Harry, ever hear the one about I don’t give a crap?” said Wyznowski the cigarette distributor.


The only ones who took Harry’s gruffness seriously were the small children. He frightened most of them, at least at first. They would eventually learn that his bark was indeed worse than his bite and would sit on the red faux leather covered stools at the counter and try to provoke answers of more than a grunt of one or two syllables from him. They would pepper him with absurd, trick questions, but Harry would outwit them, all the while pretending their games annoyed him.


During lulls in their day, while he was wiping down the counter or washing out coffee mugs and soda glasses, Flo sometimes watched Harry while she pretended to read the newspaper. The store would be quiet except for the buzz of the ice cream freezer and hum of the refrigerator. Even the traffic on Remsen Avenue seemed to taper down to a whisper, and, in the soft heat of summer days under the slowly spinning blades of the ceiling fans, there would come moments when time felt stilled, when there was nowhere else in the world except for there.


And in those moments, time and age and weariness fell away from Harry like withered petals on a flower, revealing the beautiful bloom beneath. Harry had always been a barrel of a man with a large neck, broad shoulders, and powerful arms covered in thick dark hair. When she had first laid eyes on him, he was 17 but already a man, strong from working for his father, a stone mason in Warsaw. Flo was 15 and had gone with her mother to pick out her grandmother’s headstone for the unveiling on the first yahrzeit, still some six months away.


He was a young bull, dark and intense, swinging a heavy hammer against wedges sunk into a large piece of granite to split it in half. His hammer sang off the metal wedges and the beautiful young man sang too, in a voice more beautiful than anything she had ever heard. She later learned he was singing opera, but all she heard that day was his rich, sweet baritone filling the air and wrapping around her like a warm embrace.


That first sight of him and sound of his voice was Flo’s most precious memory, more precious than the day he first looked into her eyes and smiled, or their wedding, or even the births of their children. That was the memory from which all the others would spring.


Then someone would come into the store and the moment would disappear. But for a while after, as she made them their malteds or prepared sandwiches, she imagined she could still hear Harry’s song as it slowly drifted out the door and melted away into the sounds of the world.


The last time Flo heard Harry sing outside of her daydreams had been more than a quarter of a century ago, before the war.


For lunch, the store would be full, standing room only as children and adults waited for stools at the counter or seats at the six small tables in the rear. The grown-ups were all workers from neighboring shops and the junkyards and body and fender places along Ditmas Avenue, even some from Brooklyn Terminal Market, a short walk up Remsen. In the summer, the kids came from the local playground and all around the neighborhood for their 50¢ hamburger, fries, and soda special; during the school year, they came from P.S. 233 a few blocks down Avenue B and as far away as the junior high school up on Ralph Avenue.


Lunch was loud and frantic. People shouting their orders for takeout in a cacophony of accents, kids laughing, yelling, screeching with delight in the way that only children can. Diners talking about sports, the Mets, the Yankees, still holding grudges against the Dodgers, and everyone had an opinion on politics, especially Richard Nixon. This was a blue collar neighborhood, readers of the liberal Post and working class Daily News. The only people who bought the Times wore suits and ties to work.


Harry wore a long-sleeve white shirt, black pants, and heavy black shoes every day. When it was warm, he rolled his sleeves up over his massive forearms to his elbows; when it was cold, he put on an ancient, moth-eaten gray cardigan; when it was freezing, he added a scarf around his neck. He claimed not to feel the weather and didn’t own an overcoat but kept at his wife’s insistence, a tweed cap to cover his crew cut bristle of gray hair against the damp.


Flo had to wait many months until she saw Harry again. Back then, in Warsaw, he was Herschel, and she was Feigel, a Yiddish name that means “bird.” Of course, even as a girl, Feigel was no delicate bird. She was a sturdy girl of average height, with brown eyes and hair that was, before it turned gray and lost its brilliance, a rich chestnut. She never deceived herself that she was anything but plain and knew she wasn’t going to mature into any sort of beauty. All her life, everyone told her she was the very image of her mother at the same age. She adored her mother, a kind and loving woman, extraordinary in spirit and soul but ordinary on the outside.


While she waited for her grandmother’s yahrzeit to draw closer, necessitating a return visit to the mason, Feigel went to the library and asked for a book about opera. Secular music wasn’t a part of her family’s Orthodox life. Singing was reserved for prayer in the temple. Herschel had a deep, full voice like Cantor Ganzfried who she always loved listening to while she snuggled against her mother in the women’s section of the synagogue on Saturday mornings. A friendly librarian pointed her towards the library’s small collection of phonograph records and took her into a small private room where she was allowed to listen to them on the Victrola. The girl gasped in recognition at the very first recording. It was Herschel’s song.


“That composition is La Donna e Mobile, from an Italian opera called Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi,” said the librarian. “The man singing it is Enrico Caruso, the greatest baritone the world has ever known. He made this recording in 1908. I fear we’ll never have another like him.”


An electric thrill ran through Feigel. To her ears, the recording sounded distant and hollow, yet even in her memory, Herschel’s voice was full, clear, and more beautiful than the songs of the summer birds.


In the months that followed, Feigel would return to the library to listen to that recording dozens of times until she had committed the lyrics of the Italian ballad to memory. It became a constant refrain playing behind every thought and wafting through her dreams. Whenever she heard that music, she saw his face in his mind’s eye and she wanted to hear it always.


La donna è mobile, qual piuma al vento, muta d'accento—e di pensier.”


Flo couldn’t recall how young Feigel had endured those endless months dreaming of Herschel. It may have begun as a school girl crush on an older boy, but any hint of doubt was banished the moment she and her mother walked into the stone mason’s yard and glazed in stone dust, his dark hair falling across his forehead, he greeted them. He smiled at Feigel’s mother and then he turned his gaze on her. Even before he spoke, her heart leapt like a deer, and she blushed.


Herschel blushed too, ripping his eyes from her as though against their will and, fumbling his words and his feet, he turned the subject to business with her mother. Feigel’s hands were shaking and from somewhere came the sound of La Donna e Mobile. It wasn’t until Herschel looked back at her with dark eyes wide with wonder that she realized she was singing softly to herself.


The summer afternoons passed quickly. There was a steady demand for ice cold cans of soda, candy, gum, and cigarettes, egg creams and shakes, ice cream cones and ices, and when there were no customers to wait on, there was always something to do. Shelves were restocked, the cooler filled with cans of Coca-Cola, Sprite, Like, and RC, or the grill scrubbed down and the oil in the deep fryer changed. Every afternoon, Harry would lift the wooden treads behind the counter and mop the floor. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, the distributor pulled his truck up to the curb and hurled wire bundled stacks of magazines and comic books at their door. Harry would lug them to the back of the store and check the delivery against the included invoice. So many copies of Time Magazine or Life or Popular Mechanics or Playboy, check, check, check, check, then the previous issues had to be pulled from the magazine stand and replaced by the new ones. Unsold copies were supposed to go into the trash after having their covers torn off to be returned to the distributor for credit. Harry sold all his coverless returns to a used paper dealer who in turn sold them to secondhand bookstores for half price resale to the public.


Late afternoons and evenings in the summer had a rhythm of their own. Hot, weary workers dripped off the number 17 bus, one arriving every six minutes according to the schedule, and popped in for a newspaper, a pack of smokes, or a cooling soda before making the two of three block trudge home. Only the men had the time to waste. The women who worked outside the house had to shop and prepare dinner so it would be waiting for their husbands when they got home.


People in the neighborhood didn’t often go out to eat during the week, but those who did usually went to the Cobe Diner on Ditmas, or Zip’s deli and the Chinese place over on Avenue A. After dinner, the teenagers took over. They arrived in singles, couples, and groups. They filled the counter and the tables to overflowing, downing sodas and ice cream and shared orders of greasy French fries doused in ketchup. They came out on dates or to flirt with whoever it was they hoped to date. They were brash and loud, and their laughter was the music that made Flo happy now. Years ago, when they were living above the old store in Queens, their own children had been a part of the nightly cacophony.


Harry didn’t smile, but she knew he liked having the kids around. It made the store come alive and, yes, it gave him something to grunt and complain about. They were noisy, they stole candy bars and penny candies and then read the magazines and comic books with fingers still sticky from their ill-gotten sweets. Theft was the one crime Harry would not forgive. The punishment wasn’t a call to the offender’s parents but a lifetime banishment from the store with no possibility of parole. “A thief is a thief is a thief,” he growled once to a father who had come in to plead for a reprieve for his Clark bar stealing son. “I don’t want him no more in my store. You don’t like, you don’t gotta come in neither.” For Harry, that was an oration.


Even as a young man, Herschel had to be coaxed into speaking, especially about his feelings. But that didn’t matter to Feigel. When he sang, he told her everything that was in his head and his heart. That day, though the girl could just barely hold to a tune, Herschel had no trouble understanding her music and added his powerful voice to her whispered, “Sempre un amabile, leggiadro viso, in pianto o in riso—è menzognero.”


Feigel’s mother later confessed that she didn’t know what shocked her more, that her daughter was singing opera in Italian or that she was singing it with a handsome boy who had the voice of an angel and eyes that saw the soul behind Feigel’s face.


Having herself suffered the difficulties of a plain girl in finding a husband, Feigel’s mother was quick to note the attraction and even quicker to give it her blessing. What wasn’t to like? He was Jewish, observant, young, and strong, and learning the family business from his father. And he clearly adored her Feigel.


Herschel courted Feigel for several months until her seventeenth birthday. At the celebration of that occasion, the shy stonecutter took her father aside and formally asked permission to wed his daughter. Feigel’s father laughed. “Would you leave and forget about her if I said no?” he asked.


“No, sir,” Herschel said, bewildered by the question.


They were married on June 24, 1938, at her father’s house in Warsaw. Maybe it was memory playing tricks on her 30 years later, but she remembered there always being music in their lives together in Poland. Herschel brought with him a Victrola his father had taken in trade for a job for a music shop owner, and phonograph records, mostly opera, but also polkas and waltzes, and even some Polish recordings of American popular music. And when there was no phonograph, Herschel sang, sometimes softly to himself, often at full voice, all shyness and self-consciousness borne away by his joy of song.


“You should be on the stage, Herschel,” family, friends, and strangers told him. Once, a producer ordering an engraved cornerstone for his new theater heard the young man’s singing from the yard and raced outside prepared to offer whoever he found there a generous contract. The mason’s apprentice thanked the man for his offer but said a stonecutter had no place on the stage.


There was no music in their lives anymore. Harry hadn’t sung since the war, and he refused to listen to musical programs on the radio or television. Harry wouldn’t even allow a jukebox in the store, saying he didn’t like all the noise. The gonifs running the jukebox and pinball machine business were generous enough to allow them to take a pair of pinball machines instead. Unlike music, their flashing lights and raucous bells, whistles, and clangs somehow didn’t grate on his nerves.


Sometimes one of the kids would come in with a little transistor radio blaring whatever it was that passed for music and Harry would snap at him, “Shut’im off or put on the game, yeah?”


They kept the store open until ten during the summer. Someone always needed something last minute, a pack of cigarettes or to satisfy a craving for something sweet, but they came straggling in now, tired and subdued at the end of a long, hot summer day. That last hour was calm and soothing, like her mid-afternoon reveries. Not that she had time to daydream. Cleaning up from the day and preparing what they could for tomorrow’s six a.m. opening kept them busy, working side by side as they always had, with an understanding that made words between them unnecessary.


As comfortable as she had grown in their silent relationship, Flo sometimes missed the way it had been. They were married only a few months when the German blitzkrieg rolled into Poland and, in an instant, Feigel and Herschel’s world collapsed. Arrangements were made for Feigel, her mother, and three sisters to leave, literally with the clothes on their backs, with her husband, father, and two brothers to follow.


Feigel begged Herschel to come with her, but he refused to leave until he had done all he could to help the rest of his family to safety.


“Don’t do anything stupid,” Feigel whispered to him in the dark the night before she was to leave. “You’ll get out, come to America. I’ll be in New York City. We have family who will take us in.”


“Don’t you worry about me,” he said. She remembered thinking he was trying so hard to be brave for her, but while he loved her like a man, he was still a boy. “Open your window and sing. I’ll hear you, wherever you are in New York City.”


And so, she sang, the first music she had ever heard from him. “La donna è mobile, qual piuma al vento...” she sang in the dark and he held her close and listened until she was through.

“After all this time, do you even know the words mean?” he asked.


Feigel shook her head. “No. They sound so pretty in Italian I was afraid I might find out they meant something terrible in Polish.”


“It’s a song sung by a Duke to the daughter of his court jester Rigoletto, who he’s trying to seduce. He says,” and here he began to sing, fitting the words of their native tongue into the music.

“Woman is fickle, like a feather in the wind she changes her voice—and her mind. Always sweet, pretty face, in tears or in laughter—she is always lying. Always miserable is he who trusts her, he who confides in her—his unwary heart! Yet one never feels fully happy who on that bosom—does not drink love! Woman is fickle, like a feather in the wind, she changes her voice—and her mind, and her mind, and her mind!”


“It is terrible,” she cried out in dismay. “Do you think I’m a lying, fickle woman?”


“It’s not terrible, my Feigellah,” he laughed, covering her cheek with kisses. “It’s a man saying no matter how horrible she may be, he can’t live without a woman’s love.”


“Could you live without my love?” she said, drawing him closer.


“No, even if you aren’t a cold, deceiving harpy. You wait for me in New York City. I won’t be far behind.”


Herschel would be eight years behind Feigel. His father, brothers, and he waited too long and were forced to flee into the wilderness, living on the run from Nazi patrols for many weeks until they were taken in by a Polish resistance unit. They lived like animals in caves and dark cellars and fought for over a year when Herschel was captured and sent to the Treblinka work camp. He would never learn the fate of his father or brothers, but he would escape his work detail one winter morning and remain on the loose for two more years. He was captured again and, still healthy enough to work, labored on the burial detail at the Majdabek, the first of the Nazi extermination camps to be liberated in July of 1944. As they fled before the approaching Allied army, the Germans made every effort to kill as many Jews as they could. Herschel was shot in the throat and left to die.


Half dead from starvation and loss of blood, the army medics did what they could to make him comfortable until he died. But Herschel wouldn’t die. He hung on, his dry, cracked lips forming words without sound. No one knew what he was trying to tell them. They never would have thought he was singing.


When it became clear Herschel had no plans to die, a medic from Brooklyn named Silverman took over his care. Silverman was touched by the young man’s tenacity and consumed with curiosity over what he was trying to tell them. Herschel’s injuries made it impossible for him to speak and he was too weak to even hold a pen. The corpsman called in some favors and had Herschel transferred to a behind the line hospital unit where one of the surgeons specialized in throat wounds.


Many operations later, late in 1945, after the wars on both sides of the world had ended, Silverman came by for a last visit before he was shipped home. “Look at you now, Harry,” Silverman said, calling him by an Americanized version of his name in Yiddish, their common language. “A year ago, you were nothing but skin and bones, now you’re like a horse. And the doctor tells me you’re healing nicely from the last surgery.”


The rumble that came from his mouth sounded like he was saying, “Yes, can talk. Little.”


Silverman’s smile was radiant. “That’s great, Harry, really great. I have to go. Now, I have your wife’s address in New York you gave me, and I’ll look her up as soon as I get back and let her know what’s going on. And I’ve got a cousin, a lawyer, he can help her figure what it takes to get you to the U.S., okay?”


Harry nodded. “Tak,” he grunted. Polish for yes.


The men shook hands and before he left, Silverman said, “There’s something I’ve always been meaning to ask you, Harry. When you were first liberated, you kept trying to tell us something, but nobody could understand. Do you remember that? Do you recall what you were trying say that was so important?”


The corner of his mouth twitched, the closest thing to a smile Silverman had ever seen on his face. Harry nodded.


“Singing. Rigoletto.” Harry swallowed hard and winched in pain. “For my wife.”


Corporeal Silverman told her the story on his first telephone call. Feigel, now called Florence, had only learned from that Herschel had survived the war some months earlier. New information of his status as a displaced person was slow to arrive and hard to find out. If it hadn’t been for Silverman and his help, she wasn’t sure if she would have ever been reunited with her husband and the father of their now six year old daughter, Rose, conceived that night he last sang to her.


Then one day, Harry did come to America. He walked off the ship that had brought him across the ocean and into Flo’s arms. On the surface, she could see how very changed he was from the boy she had been forced to leave in Poland, but once she felt him in her arms, she knew it would be alright.


“Thank god, thank god. I missed you so, Herschel. I missed you more than the music,” she said.


“Yes. Missed you,” his ruined voice grunted in his ear.


She pulled away from him in shock.


“Herschel. Your voice. I thought you were getting better...?”


He touched his throat and shook his head. “Music gone.”


They were alone in the store. Harry was sweeping the floor and Flo was washing the last of the glassware at the sink. That moment on the dock was the bittersweet start to their life. They were together again, newlyweds after a long separation during which she had been sure he was dead. That he lived and was here now, with or without a voice, was miracle enough for her, come what may. But she would always mourn the loss of the music.


La donna è mobile, qual piuma al vento, muta d'accento—e di pensier. Sempre un amabile, leggiadro viso, in pianto o in riso—è menzognero.”


She wanted that to be the last thing she heard as she lay dying. She wanted Harry to be singing it to her, it didn’t matter whether it was in the voice of an angel or a croaking frog.


And knowing she was doing it, Flo started softly to sing. At first, she could hardly hear herself over the running water, but as she went on, her thin voice grew louder, and she was suddenly aware that Harry was standing on the other side of the counter, broom in hand, staring at her. She stopped.


“What you doing?” he barked.


Flo looked at the tired old man across from her but for some reason, suddenly all she saw was the beautiful, strong young boy, pale with stone dust, swinging his mason’s mallet, and filling the world with his voice and his song.


“I’m singing,” she said.


Harry made a violent gesture with his hand and turned away from her. “Don’t got time for nonsense. Finish. We go home.”


“Harry.”


He ignored her and returned to sweeping, but now he chopped at the scarred linoleum with the broom, sending the accumulated dirt scattering.


“Harry,” Flo said again.


“Don’t bother me. Don’t remember no songs.” He still wouldn’t look at her.


“Yes, you do, Harry. You remember this. La donna è mobile, qual piuma...”


Harry’s back stiffened and he dropped the broom.


Piuma al vento, muta d'accento—e di pensier.”


“Got no time for this bullshit,” he growled and stormed towards the door.


“Please, Harry. Sing for me. I miss our music,” Flo said softly, in Polish. “I didn’t know until just now that I can’t stand it. I can’t take another minute without our music, Harry.”


Harry stopped in his tracks and stood like a statue for long moments. Then, as he slowly started to turn back to face her, she heard something. It sounded like rocks rattling around in a coffee can, but it was Harry’s ruined voice rattling around in his chest and forcing its way past his scarred throat, broken and harsh, in a deep, discordant rumble but with every word understandable.


He sang to her, “La donna è mobile, qual piuma al vento, muta d'accento—e di pensier,” and it was the most beautiful sound Flo had ever heard.


More beautiful, if possible, than the first time Feigel ever heard Herschel sing.






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