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Two Cents and a Corned Beef Sandwich

May 13, 2014
by Harold Ticktin images-1No, this is not about 2¢ plain; that’s New York, this is Cleveland, about Sam and me walking to school together when we were 8 years old in 1935. There was such a year and believe me it was just as grim as you may have heard. We’re talking here about two pieces of chocolate candy perched in a slanted glass shelving in Johnny Russo’s drugstore on our corner. It’s a sad story, beginning in the drugstore and ending in prison and death. We lived about six houses apart, divided by the alley where we played baseball on a street almost exclusively of two-level houses, mostly rented. Except for a German family and a Lutheran minister, everyone was either Jewish or Italian, with Russo’s on one corner and, appropriately, Rosen’s, his competition, on the other. The Walgreens and CVS of my day. When my mother finally loosened her grip on how I got to school, she insisted I walk the four blocks with Sam. I didn’t yet know Sam’s story, which was easily the saddest on the street. He didn’t discover that the woman he called Ma was not his real mother, who died when he was less than a baby, until it dawned on him that there was something radically different in the manner he was treated from his two siblings. He didn’t learn that truth from his father, a house painter who subscribed to the Yiddish adage that the world is based on three things, gelt, gelt, and gelt. Like Cinderella, Sam had quite literally nothing but the clothes he wore and the meals he was served, each of which looked pretty much the same. Thus it was that the two cents my mother gave me to buy candy at Russo’s became the binding glue of our relationship until he died while living in a halfway house after his release from prison. From the first day, at that advanced age of 8, I couldn’t let Sam walk with me while I ate both pieces of chocolate so carefully selected from the dour Mr. Russo. For some years it was a daily routine: to Russo’s, selecting the chocolate, giving one to Sam, continuing on to school. I must confess that I resented not the sharing but the way Sam consumed his portion. While my family was by no means well off (who was in those days?), I was not the stranger to chocolate Sam was. In those four blocks to school, my portion was consumed by the second, as Sam tenderly cosseted his all the way to school. This irritated me, but I never let on. Because Sam had such little affection at home, he sought it elsewhere, so it was that he became the organizer of our club at the local settlement house, with our overstated Latin name, the Amicus, chosen by Sam, who really needed friends. By junior and senior high, there was no longer the same routine to be followed. We both went to the Navy in June of 1945, and via the GI Bill we went our separate scholastic paths. Given the reverence in which he held Russo’s it was bashert (destined) that he become a pharmacist. There could be no other possibility for him. I became a lawyer. Sam stayed in Cleveland for a while, then established himself in Miami. For fifty some years, our encounters were regular but infrequent. Sam married once while I married three times. Whoever I was with, whether a new wife or an old friend, Sam had one greeting for me, a recitation about Russo’s and the 2¢ chocolates, a charming story to whomever had not heard it before. Sadly, given his childhood, Sam and gelt were a toxic combination. His store in Miami did well, but in what psychiatrists would dub an overcompensation, his thirst for maternal comfort could only come from money. He overreached badly, selling drugs without prescriptions, and in the late 1980’s he wound up in federal prison. We were not seeing much of each other by then. Somewhat to my surprise, he began to write to me from prison. He had a beautiful script, which I can see as I write this. Naturally the first letter was yet another retelling of the 2¢ chocolate reminiscence. I can’t remember all the things he touched upon, some disquieting, others just sad. He recalled my mother’s overcaring, adding, “but Lena loved Harold” — the kind of love he knew existed but never had. The sentence that still reverberates for me was, “You are my oldest friend.” My wife and I visited Miami infrequently to stay with friends who had a vacation home in Kendall. Sam wrote me that he was about to be released. Divorced now, he would be in a halfway house near Miami. Naturally I got in touch and drove out there to see him, a sad encounter indeed. We were both now in our seventies, Sam sad as always. Once again he recalled the 2¢ chocolate and Johnny Russo’s drugstore. “What would you like to do” I asked. “Well”, he said, “I haven’t had a corned beef sandwich for a long time.” I guess it was a fitting end to this gray story that Sam was able to share another symbol of Jewish pleasure, at Wolfie’s no less, in Miami Beach, with his oldest friend, a few weeks before he died. Harold Ticktin is a retired attorney in Shaker Heights, OH, long involved in the civil rights and labor movements, a self-taught Yiddishist, and a regular contributor to Jewish Currents.