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E.L. Freifeld: Best Seller

(Big Zalman and his ‘poet wife’.
When a lie can save a life.
A “buba mentsa”—a story—
on self publishing)

One of the happiest days of my life was the first time I went riding with big Zalman to deliver newspapers off the truck, in Brooklyn. As we approached each newsstand for a drop, Zalman would shout, “Grab another bindel.” and off they flew through the air like flocks of birds on paper wings! And with each bindel delivered I could feel the truck getting lighter and lighter until we seemed to be flying like the bindels, and not just rolling on the ground, on wheels. I can still hear them plop on the pavement when they landed in front of the stands, as we drove to the next drop on his daily route over the Williamsburg, and back to Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge to Chinatown. We started out at 6 a.m. sharp from the loading ramps on Delancey Street down by the East River.

1940-40th-streetMy father had something definite in mind when he hooked me up with his friend Zalman who played three-handed pinochle with him and Constantine the Armenian, in the back room at Philip Blaufarb’s barber shop. He was a strong man in the trucker’s union, very hard to get in. If Zalman took a liking to me, he had no sons, who knows? he could push me in with the union to get a job someday when I got older. My father also wanted me to learn to be a shoemaker with one of his landsmen from the old country, but never really walked into my imagination. But Zalman, big Zalman was larger than life 6.2, and he wasn’t walking to Brooklyn, he was flying out in the fresh air, scooting along at 50 miles an hour. He used to say “If you drive up to 50 miles an hour, you save on gas. You burn less gas”. After some time getting used to it, the heavy bindels grew light as feathers tied together with balls of string, stacked like soft pillows.

One day en route, as the stacks diminished and emptied out, I noticed a little pile of green books in a corner, behind the piles. It had a picture of a pretty girl looking sad, standing at a bus station waiting for a bus.

“What’s those books for?” I asked him. “We gotta deliver them too?”
“Oh, those . . . yes” he trailed off, “they belong to my wife. What she wrote”.

We had just turned off Ocean Parkway into Flatbush Avenue.
“Deliver them . . . ” he mumbled, “yes . . . in a manner of speaking”.

I was puzzled. It wasn’t the first time I was puzzled by Zalman. After some more drops, we stopped for coffee at a diner off Church Avenue.

“On the way back we got a few new stands to drop in Brooklyn Heights, then back over the bridge to Manhattan”.

“What about those books. Where do we drop them?”

Zalman’s ice began to melt, and his heart grew heavy. I could tell because he looked at me oddly squinting his eyes, like ‘who is this kid asking me questions all the time?’ Anyway, he must have figured it out because finally the ice broke altogether, and he started giving me a “buba meintsa”, a story.

“When I first got married, I was the luckiest man alive. I still am. My wife was going to Hunter College uptown”, he waved his hand above his head, “and she was real smart, not like me, a bum wid no job. I come from a poor family but so did she, and she wrote very good and spelling and wanted to write for a newspaper. To improve herself. Not like me. She was better than me. So I got a job with a bakery truck, I mean delivering for a bakery”.

“My uncle Harry did that too,” I chimed in.

“Then she got a job with the Tribune and we had two girls Sheindala and Rosie. Well, some years after, after the children she came to me and says she decided she don’t like writing for newspapers anymore and stopped working there. She said she was a poet and wanted to write poetry!”

“I like poetry too,” I told him I had read some. “Do you like poetry?

He looked at me like I was crazy.

“I never read any poetry in my life, my mother used to read to me sometimes . . . I can’t remember.” Big Zalman trailed off again . . . “I just don’t understand the stuff. I read a paper I know what it’s about, what’s happening in the news. Poetry must be something for the future. Anyhow, one day she meets this printer over on Ludlow Street, says he wants to publish her book and we say o.k. The old guy said he was sure her poetry book would be a best seller!”

Next thing I knew Zalman jumped up from the counter, looked at his watch and made a dash for the door with me under his arm and two extra containers of hot coffee.

“We’re runnin’ late, we gotta get goin’. After the Heights, we still gotta swing back to Chinatown over the Bridge, and I don’t wanna get stuck in morning traffic”.

I fell in love twice in Brooklyn Heights; once the first time I went there with Zalman that day, and ten years later when I met Kathy, the girl from Vassar. I was not quite/yet ‘literary’ at the time but the ambience, the ‘spirit of the place’ filled me with desires and premonitions. I must have felt much like Hart Crane viewing the skyline of lower Manhattan from the promenade above the waterfront, leaning an elbow on the wind. Like the West Village there was an air of bohemianism about the neighborhood. I dreamed one day I would live there and revisited many times over the years. I had some friends there.

As we tooled over the bridge to Chinatown, down the Bowery back to the garage on Delancey Street, I asked again about the little stack of green books his wife had written.

Zalman grew pensive again and said, “Well kid, that’s another buba meintsa altogether. You see, after those books were published and sold some to friends and family, she was left with a lot of books still in boxes! “What are we gonna do with them?” she lamented, until one day she was passing on 4th avenue and found a used bookstore wanted to buy them all. She was so happy when she came home she wanted to go dancing!

“Great!” Zalman was happy too, “I’ll deliver them right to his door. Did you tell him. How much did he pay you. How many pieces did he buy?” At this, his poor wife was diminished and said, “He said he would give me 50 cents apiece”.

“Fifty cents!” Zalman was outraged, “is he kiddin’? It cost us $1.50 to print each copy!” He refused to allow her to give them away in that manner. His wife just stammered and the tears would shortly follow; “It’s not the money, it’s an opportunity” “Opportunity for what?” “For publicity”. At this, he clammed up and wouldn’t finish the story. “You wanna buy a copy?” was the last I heard about it from Zalman. To make a short story shorter, one day some years later when I was getting a lousy haircut from Philip the barber between the smelly cigar in his mouth and Baby Snooks on the radio, he told me the rest of the story. It seems Zalman’s wife became depressed and Zalman felt terrible for not allowing her to give her books away at a loss. He thought and thought about it and no matter how much he thought her unhappiness wouldn’t go away. So one day he took a pile of her books from the box on his truck and tried to sell them. The newspaper guys at the stands just raised their hands in disbelief and wondered if Zalman had gone mad! Alas, even the second hand booksellers on 4th avenue didn’t want them, and those out of courtesy who took a couple books on consignment returned them unsold, not without gathering some dust on their shelves. What was he to do, poor Zalman and his disconsolate wife. Then it clicked in his head one day what to do, as quickly as a bindel of newspapers dropped on the pavement. That evening when he got home after a hard days work he said, “Guess what? I have a surprise for you!”

“Is it my birthday already. I thought it’s next month”.

“Guess again.” he insisted, giving her a hug; “I sold two of your books today”.

“Really!!!” Her green eyes twinkled like the pretty picture on the cover of her book.

“Tell me, tell me! Who bought them?”

“Never mind, a book store in Brooklyn Heights. Here, here’s the money. Go out and buy yourself something nice”. He put the money in her delicate hand. She looked despondently at the few coins and laughed, “I need to sell a lot more books to buy what I want . . . a new skirt. I saw a nice pink one on Orchard Street yesterday”.

The following week, Zalman pretended to sell another five books and another and another every week until presumably, there were none left to sell!

“You see?” his talented wife was jubilant, “the old printer was right. It is a best seller!”

“Yes darling, it is. It’s a best seller!”

“We shall have to print some more!” she told her husband. And when that time came, Zalman would just bring the same books in the boxes from the truck back into the house and start the process all over again.

The next time I saw big Zalman I asked to buy one of her books.

“How’s it going?” I asked him.

“Just fine,” he replied, “selling like hot cakes!”

“Must be a best seller!”

“Yeah,” he concluded, “it’s a best seller.”

I read her little book from cover to cover and it was beautiful. So tender and sensitive, filled with strength and perception, straight like an arrow from the heart. Yes, it was a ‘best seller’ no matter how many stupid people read it, and I couldn’t help thinking that if I too was lucky, one day I would fall in love with a woman like Zalman’s wife Evelyn, who wrote poetry.

© E.L. Freifeld – 06.05.2013/all rights reserved


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