An Enterprising Young Man

Benjamin B. Ferencz

My mind has some difficulty distinguishing the timing of events that occurred between the carefree age of three, and the age of six when my parents divorced. From all reports, I was a very tiny but very active child who would never sit still. I think I cried in a Hungarian accent. My mother would place my sister and I out for an airing at the head of the dozen iron steps that led up from our basement apartment. My sister, now called “Pearl,” was an orderly child who would stay put. I would immediately dash off and disappear, much to my sister’s consternation and frustration since she, being eighteen months older than I, was expected to serve as my guardian. Like a stray cat or a puppy, I invariably returned home, usually looking somewhat disheveled or slightly filthy, after having scooted off on some adventurous tour of the forbidden neighborhood.

To keep me out of mischief I was assigned various chores that I could do in the cellar. One of the more significant ones was to help my father collect the garbage. I guess I was perhaps four, or maybe even five, before I qualified for that responsibility. In every kitchen in every apartment there was a small closet-like door that opened onto a shaft that contained the dumbwaiter. At least once a day, the janitor was required to “take the garbage.” A lift, hand-operated via a rope pulley in the basement, was hauled up, and each tenant would deposit trash on the dumbwaiter shelf. There was no refrigeration in those days and you could always smell when the garbage was being collected. The janitor would unload the garbage into a large metal can that he would then carry up the steps to the sidewalk for collection by the city’s garbage collectors. I was occasionally allowed to help my father pull on the ropes. You could say that I was sort of the Assistant Janitor. My first foray into the ranks of a titled, but unpaid, employee was not as much fun as one might think. My father wore gloves but I had none. The twisted fibers were coarse and prickly and hurt my tender hands. As my father kept pushing me out of the way, I didn’t much like the assignment.

In due course, I persuaded my boss to promote me to a more respectable position. I would receive whatever newspapers or bottles were unloaded and arrange them neatly for later recycling. Although I was too young to read, I soon learned that some of the empty milk bottles had an embossed number blown into the glass. If such bottles were returned to the grocer he would give me two cents, and in some cases even three cents, for the empty bottle. Eureka! That is how I started to make my fortune. I became an independent entrepreneur in the environmental conservation business! It was not long after that I decided to expand my operations.

I had noticed in my sojourns around the block that there were a number of boys peddling newspapers on Eighth Avenue. They carried a pile of papers under their arms and shouted “Extra, Extra! Get your papers!” Many of the men hurrying home from work would grab a copy of the Daily News and stick some money into the hands of the screaming vendors. It didn’t look difficult to me so I decided to embark on a career as a newsboy. I had an ample supply of papers I had dutifully assembled in the cellar. I put a batch together neatly, paraded up to the avenue and began to holler, “Getcher papers!” Business was proceeding briskly as pennies kept popping into my hand like manna from heaven. With all profit and no taxes, it might have been a great enterprise but, unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. One fine gentleman glanced at his new purchase and discovered that it wasn’t new at all. With an apologetic smile, I gave him a full two-cents refund. He then gently escorted me back home. Papa gave me a dirty look, promised to chastise me, and took all my dough. That was the end of what could have been a very lucrative career. I learned that not every business venture is bound to succeed—especially if you don’t play by the rules.

More gainful opportunities arose one day when a young artist stopped by the house to speak to my mother. He was looking for a small girl to model for a Christmas drawing he was preparing for the cover of a popular magazine. My long blond hair had been cut by my Mom in the usual flowerpot style. I auditioned wearing my sister’s blouse. I was offered the job. The studio was not far away. I recall posing while holding a large peppermint candy cane. For my efforts I was paid two-dollars and fifty cents in nickels and dimes which I proudly presented to my dear managing agent. Of course my mother also wanted a copy of the picture. I found my way back to the studio and was assured that as soon as the painting was published I would get a reprint; I was invited to return another day. I was glad to visit since I always received some candies. Pretty models in the studio would gush that I was “so cute.” They would further reward me with hugs and kisses. Although I was never offered either a reproduction or additional pay, I must admit that the fringe benefits of my temporary employment were rather gratifying. Money isn’t everything.

A great deal can be accomplished without high financing. Goodwill can be very rewarding. Take, for example, my connection with Tony the shoeshine man. He had a little booth sandwiched between two tall buildings on 56th Street. He was within the bounds of my permissible sojourns, since a visit to his shoeshine parlor did not require me to cross a street. If, in circling the block, I noticed that both of his high customer chairs were empty and he seemed to be lonely, I would stop to bid him good morning. We could chat until a customer arrived. He was learning English interspersed with Yiddish and I was learning to speak with an Italian accent. I may have reminded him of his family back in Italy. I’m sure he welcomed my visits since he always gave me a Tootsie Roll from a box of candies he had on display. Each “Tootsie” cost only a penny, but that usually exceeded my available cash, and so I accepted the chewy chocolate as a gesture of friendship from one immigrant to another.

If, due to circumstances beyond my control, I had been away from home longer than expected, I knew that my mother would be worried and angry with me when I returned. I would make an extra stop at Tony’s to wish him good day and explain my troubles to him. I told him quite honestly how I needed a Tootsie Roll to appease my Mom. When I got back to our basement late, I would be greeted by scowls and shouts in Yiddish or other languages demanding to know where I had been. I replied innocently that I was sorry I was delayed, but I had been busy consoling Tony who missed his family. I would then present my Tootsie Roll with a sweet declaration, “Look what I brought you.” I was very close to my mother’s heart, but throughout the rest of her life, whenever I tried to sweet-talk her, she would say, “Here comes Benny with his Tootsie Roll.” Nevertheless, a kind word turneth away wrath. No cash required.

One of the tenants in our house was an old medical doctor who had lost his sight. He would sit on the stoop for long hours and I would sit with him to keep him company. Occasionally, I would even take him for a walk around the block while he rested his hand on my shoulder and I served as his eyes. We were not of the same generation. He was a very old man and I was a very young child, yet somehow a bond developed between us. Many years later, after he died, I learned that he had named me in his will as the recipient of all of his books, including his old medical texts. They had no real value but I guess he had nothing else to give. Perhaps he thought I would become a doctor. Although I derived no real benefit from his last testament, I have never forgotten his kindness.