by Judith Katz-Schwartz


No question, I come from a family of comedians and eccentrics. One of our most colorful characters was, and always will be, Uncle Aaron. He was, after all, the son of Grandma, and when you grow up under a powerful influence of that type, you are prone to being a couple of eggrolls short of a combination plate.

Uncle, as we all called him (Well, to be perfectly truthful, my sister, Evelyn and I frequently referred to him as Uncle Muggsy because of his resemblance to the actor Leo Gorcey, of the East Side Gang films), had plenty of idiosyncrasies, some of which are still coming to light in conversations with my cousins.

Uncle was part owner and chief operator of the family "Store", a luncheonette on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. For a while, my father was his partner, but Uncle drove him crazy because he was so disorganized, and Dad was a meticulous man. If you asked Dad to draw a line for you, he'd sit down, spread out a piece of paper, line up the ruler and the perfectly sharpened pencil, and then he'd draw a line for you. Uncle probably never used a ruler in his life. In fact, according to Mom, his sister, Uncle had never used lots of instruments because he hadn't been much of a student. His high school career was - um - spotty. Once, when he was discovered reading a newspaper in French class, and Grandma was summoned to school, she forced Mom to go and speak to the teacher in her stead, because she couldn't leave the business. So Mom trudged up to school, walked into Uncle's French class, and announced that she was there to talk to the teacher about Uncle. The teacher walked to the door of the classroom, and beckoned Mom outside. When Mom stepped out into the hall, the teacher stepped back into the room and closed the door in Mom's face. And that was the end of that.

Uncle was quite a prankster when he was a boy, and quite a pest too, judging by what Mom remembers. He once scooped some horse manure into an ice cream cup, added a spoon, and convinced the girl next door to eat it. He also followed Mom and her friends down the street, singing at the top of his lungs, "My sister wears a girdle!" When Mom complained to Grandma, she was told that he "didn't know any better", so Mom simply assumed that Uncle was retarded.

He retained this sparkling personality for the rest of his life. If you can imagine a man who operates a greasy spoon eatery in a constantly changing down-on-its-luck blue collar neighborhood, and who has something to say to each and every weirdo, junkie, old bum, crazy person and transvestite who comes through the door, then you've got Uncle. While it's true that some of his commentary was aimed at individuals who didn't respond because they were too busy talking to themselves, enough people looked forward to bantering with Uncle every day to keep him going. Of course, some people didn't appreciate Uncle, so he had his altercations. In fact, the result of one of them was a behavior quirk that lasted for forty years, and which has only recently been explained to me by my cousin Jackie.

Uncle always, and I mean each and every day, ate a Danish pastry for breakfast. But, he always took the first bite and spat it out into the trash, then calmly ate the rest of the pastry. Since I always assumed Uncle was simply a nut, I never questioned what he was doing. But Jackie told me that one morning, in the 1960s, Uncle had an argument with a customer, and the customer put a curse on him.

Now, there is nothing so treacherous or so elaborate as a Jewish Curse. And some of them are hilarious. There's the one that goes, "You should grow like an onion with your head in the ground". Then there's, "You should lose every tooth in your mouth except one, and in that one you should have a toothache." Great, right? And then there are those that are tailor-made for individuals, and that's the type of curse the customer spewed at Uncle.

He said, "You should choke on your first bite of Danish in the morning."

The result? Uncle ate Danish pastry almost every morning for the rest of his life, long after he had sold the store. And every morning he spat out the first bite, so he wouldn't choke.

When Uncle grew up, he became much more of a schlemozzel, a guy to whom things just happened. The Store had a Hispanic dishwasher who didn't speak English. He was one of a series of dishwashers who didn't speak English. I've no idea how Uncle even hired them, because they spoke not a word of English, and Uncle, though he could swear a blue streak in almost any language, didn't actually speak anything except English and Yiddish. (We still don't even know the translations for all of the things he would shout out in various languages, at people of the appropriate ethnicity, whenever he saw them walk by. There's a Chinese one we don't even want to know.) He used Yiddish to communicate with Grandma, whenever she wanted an explanation for some strange behavior going on around The Store.

For example, she was very curious about some of the gays who came into the store, including a couple of feggelech (little birds), who were regulars, and one of whom was always dressed in drag. "What kind of pleasure", she asked over and over again, in Yiddish, "can they possibly give each other?" She asked that question each and every time they showed up in The Store. Until one day Uncle told her, in Yiddish, of course. I don't remember most of it, except for the word, tuchis. That was the end of that conversation.

And then there was the time she was wondering about why shrimp are not kosher. "Zay essen scheiss", ("they eat feces"), he told her. Actually, sea creatures must have gills and scales to be kosher. But Uncle, who wasn't stupid, despite what Mom thought when they were children, had observed that the sea creatures without gills and scales were scavengers, or at least that shrimp were scavengers. And, let's face it, his answer to Grandma solved a problem: she never pestered him about the subject again.

But, I digress. So this dishwasher, a little man, came in every day, did his job, and went home.

One day, the dishwasher cut his hand on a broken glass, and it was a deep cut. Uncle decided the man needed medical attention. He told me, "I looked at his hand and I thought, 'I better take him to the clap doctor.'"

The clap doctor was a man who operated a "medical" office nearby. His main clientele were the local hookers, to whom he gave penicillin to keep syphilis at bay. So Uncle dragged the poor frightened little dishwasher, who was screaming and crying, to the clap doctor's office. The clap doctor looked at the cut and said, "This is a very bad cut. I have to stitch him up."

The dishwasher was still crying and struggling, so the clap doctor told Uncle to hold his hand steady, so it could be stitched. Uncle wrestled the man to the table, and hung on for dear life, while the clap doctor stitched away. There ensued a mammoth struggle between Uncle and the frightened little dishwasher, and between the clap doctor and the rolling mass of humanity that was Uncle and the frightened little dishwasher.

"There!" the clap doctor said after about ten minutes of stitching, "All done". Which would have been the end of it, except that the clap doctor had stitched Uncle's hand and the dishwasher's hand together. I'm sure you can imagine the melee that took place after that.

I once told this story to a young cadet from the US Merchant Marine Academy who was joining us for Passover, and he laughed so hard he fell off the settee.

The Store definitely had a parade of truly wacky customers. One woman used to come in every day, walk into one of the phone booths that lined the side wall, and begin a conversation on the phone. Inevitably, the conversation - a conversation with herself, I should add - turned nasty, and she began to scream a stream of invective at the top of her lungs, clearly audible to everyone in the place. Not your most desirable luncheon entertainment. She would keep the screaming and swearing up, until Uncle sent my brother or one of my cousins to chase her out of the place. And this happened several times a day!

The Store also had some truly wacky employees. One dishwasher endlessly sang "Hey Jude", hour after hour, day in and day out. It was like Chinese water torture, a murmured accompaniment to the woman in the phone booth. We also had a dishwasher named Nando, who had just two fingers on his right hand. But, they were the largest and most frightening two digits any of us had ever seen. His hand looked like a giant lobster claw. Personally, I did everything I could to avoid any proximity to Nando's right hand.

Then there was Jesse, a dishwasher who went upstairs one day, to get some supplies. The upstairs consisted of a storage area, a staff restroom, and an open area that was actually the dropped ceiling over the dining area below. Jesse went to the storage area to get something or other, and there, out in the open area, was a cat. So Jesse decided to either get the cat or chase the cat out of there. We'll never know which, because Jesse, like all the other dishwashers, spoke no English. And, if truth be told, he wasn't that good at Spanish either. He spoke as if he had pebbles in his mouth, so he could have been speaking French, Turkish, it didn't matter. None of it was intelligbile.

So, Jesse walked out into the open area and immediately fell through the dropped ceiling, landing squarely on some customers enjoying their soup and sandwiches. Now that I think about it, it gave new meaning to the phrase, "dropped ceiling" as plaster, wood, ceiling tiles, and Jesse rained down on everyone. What could Uncle do, except send Jesse to the clap doctor for a check-up, and call a contractor to repair the ceiling? The gaping hole and the view of the upstairs storage area certainly amused the customers for the next several weeks. Yep, there was always entertainment with your meal at The Store.

I feel obligated to connect this article about Uncle to collecting in some way. Was Uncle a collector? Sort of. He was not a collector who went out shopping in antiques stores or at auctions. He collected things from stock rooms and storage facilities, usually in the middle of the night.

After The Store was sold, Uncle held a series of management jobs in the food service industry. In fact, he was managing The Big Kitchen, a large cafeteria-style establishment at the World Trade Center, and was there at the time of the first attack, in 1993. We all tried frantically to reach him by phone on that day, and couldn't find him anywhere. Finally, four hours later, he phoned me. "Are you okay?" I asked. "Yeah", replied Uncle. "I was in the prep kitchen." "Was it awful?" I wanted to know. "Yeah. There were sandwiches everywhere!"

Years later, when Uncle and Aunt Roz sold their home in Queens, they asked me to help clean it out, and tell them what to keep and what to throw away. In the basement was such an enormous array of commercial cookware and serving items, pots, pans, soufflé cups, trays, steak knives, glassware, menu clips and more, I asked if Uncle had plans to open another eatery. "No", he said, "this is from the Trade Center, this is from Between The Bread, those are from the coffee shop in Chelsea", and so on. Uncle had taken "souvenirs" from every place he'd ever worked, using the late night five finger discount method.

But lest you think that Uncle was simply a buffoon, you should know that nowhere on earth did there exist a more loving and generous husband, father, father-in-law, grandfather, brother, uncle or friend. Uncle's thousands of kindnesses to others, strangers even, with no thought about payback of any kind, are legend. He was a special, special man.

There are plenty of stories about Uncle, and I'll share them with you by and by. This was just an introduction to one of the unforgettable characters in our family. Oy.


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Copyright 2005 Judith Katz-Schwartz. All rights reserved.