Oh, how I loved working in Papa’s store after school. It’s so long ago now, of course, but I can recall how I’d run all the way home from school, always so keen to enter that world of polished wood cabinets, mahogany-framed full length mirrors and shop counters with their brass framed glass tops and fronts.
Papa was a tailor. I’ve heard people say that he was the best tailor in the whole of Brooklyn. I don’t know whether that was true, but his store on 16th Avenue, just over 51st, was an especially magical place to me.
Magical may be a childish exaggeration, but I did always believe it to be the finest in Boro Park, the finest in Brooklyn, and I bet it was the finest in all of New York. It was certainly the largest store on that part of 16th. Mister Kramer, who owned the grocery store on the corner, would come in to buy a new collar or two and say to Papa, “Oy, Mr Kravitz, in Manhattan, that’s where this store should be.”
Each day when I arrived home from school I would pause at the front of the store and inspect the window display to see which of Papa’s suits “Mr Farpitz” was wearing that day. Mr Farpitz, was the mannequin Papa had bought from Mrs Jacobi when her husband, the tailor on 12th near the movie theater, died and she closed his store. Mrs Jacobi said that if her husband had spent as much money on her as he did on his original purchase of the mannequin when he had it shipped from Paris, well then, Mrs Jacobi would be dripping in more diamonds than Mae West in that Broadway play that Papa took Mama to see. Mama always said though, “Oy, that Mrs Jacobi, what a k'vetsh she is. A pauper she’s not, already.”
Paupers we were not, either. As Papa would say, “We get by, we get by.”
At that time in the Fall of 1928, we seemed to live far more comfortably than our neighbors. Papa’s name as a bespoke tailor of note was known throughout the whole of New York, and I guess, he was amply rewarded. As you know all that was to change a year or two later.
However, back then there was no way he would ever leave Brooklyn. Papa would always say, “Never forget where you come from.” Even though Papa was born in Poland, and came to the States with Bube and Zeidy when he was just a baby, I knew he was talking about this very neighborhood where he said the people were family not merely neighbors. He loved Boro Park. Once, after the traditional Passover Seder words, “Next year in Jerusalem”, I heard Papa mumble, “Forever in Brooklyn.” He told all who would listen that, if God had given him the talent to be a fine tailor, and he was not saying that it didn’t take a lot of work as a young apprentice to learn his trade, but if God had given him the talent to be a fine tailor, then Brooklyn had given him a life, a wife, and a family. So what more could Jerusalem offer?
It may have been strange to have a “tailoring store of quality” on 16th Avenue, but Papa said, “If they want a suit made by Mosze Kravitz then they can come to Brooklyn”. Even though Papa himself, and his store, gained a reputation among the well-to-do with the quality of his tailored suits, trousers, sports coats, waistcoats, and even the fine cotton shirts that he made himself, Papa always remembered his neighbors and kept a range of low-priced ready-to-wear suitings and menswear more appropriate to the budget-conscious neighborhood. This meant there was a subtle demarcation to the layout of the store; a small area having merchandise more in keeping with the expectations of the neighborhood, and the remainder of the store being, well let’s just say, most of the store was somewhat more, should I say, elegant.
He employed a number of immigrant women in the back workroom making the less expensive ready-made coats and trousers. Some full suits and the cheaper shirts he bought from the clothing factories and shirtmakers on West 34th Street in Manhattan and some from the Black family, a Hungarian Jewish family Papa knew in Cleveland. Of course, as well as these cheaper items, he also stocked fine quality men’s merchandise; some imported from France or Italy, for those well-to-do patrons that came for Papa’s personally tailored suits. And some of those patrons were famous in their own way.
Why, Papa had even made suits for Beau James. And no shlump was he. The Brain had introduced Jimmy Walker, the Mayor, or Beau James as most people called him, to Papa’s tailoring skills, The Brain having been one of Papa’s customers for years.
Mama didn’t like The Brain, she thought him a parech - a low-life – and would say to Papa, “Why do you make suits for that goniff?” To which Papa would reply, “It should happen that I don’t earn a living? Mr R,” Papa always called The Brain, Mr R, “Mr R is a man with contacts. He’s a man of influence, a macher. And if I turned him away, would I still be breathing? I don’t question how he makes his living, but this too is a living.”
When Papa first placed the mannequin in the store window it was in a suit that Papa had made for The Brain that Young Mister Cohen, Papa’s apprentice, had dressed him.
That same day Young Mr Cohen had named the mannequin “Mr Farpitz”, which means “all dressed up”. I had heard Young Mr Cohen have more than one long conversation with Mr Farpitz. When I told Papa, he said I should worry only when “the other dummy” spoke back. Although you wouldn’t know it from his mostly serious countenance, Papa was sometimes very funny. Papa always said life was a serious business, but if you didn’t laugh at the seriousness of it, what was the point of living?
Young Mr Cohen wouldn’t change Mr Farpitz’s suit everyday, but I was always keen to see if the mannequin was wearing something new, and which shirt and which colored tie Young Mr Cohen had chosen. I wasn’t the only one, either. People would stroll blocks out of their way just to pass Papa’s window. Aside from Mr Farpitz, the window space would also be laid out with a varying display of shirts, or hats or shoes or other merchandise. Regularly changed neatly printed signs also declared “High Class Clothing for Immediate Wear”, or “Men’s, Youths and Boys Suits always in stock” or some such message. One sign, printed in gold lettering on black card, was always in the window, “M. Kravitz –Tailor. Fine Quality Suits made to order.”
If you were enticed to survey the interior, after having scanned the window display, you’d enter the store through a double glass door with a brass handle and push-plate that Young Mr Cohen would polish to a golden shine two or three times each day. Papa liked things just so. He was what Mama called genoi, fastidious, precise, and what Old Mr Cohen, Papa’s assistant and Young Mr Cohen’s father, called an okuratner mentsh, an orderly person.
Yes, I believe Papa was an orderly person, so naturally it stood to reason that inside Papa’s store was also orderly. There were tidy racks of men’s shoes, neat shelves of ready-made shirts, distinguished displays of diverse styles of hats and caps, stylish stands of neck ties each sorted by color or motif, and nearby similar stands of belts, garters and suspenders. There were also, of course, neatly hung rows of readymade suits, trousers and vests, and even discrete drawers which slid out to reveal a multiplicity of neatly folded men’s undergarments.
In beautiful glass cabinets were attractively arranged displays of men’s jewellery, cufflinks, shirt studs, tiepins, and watch fob chains. Recently Papa had begun to even stock a few bottles of men’s cologne. Every time Old Mr Cohen passed that display he would sniff loudly, and shake his head.
There were curtained dressing cubicles on one side of the store where customers could try on the ready-to-wear clothing. On the other, a velvet curtained space, about twelve feet by twelve feet, where Papa or Old Mr Cohen did their measuring, with the customer standing on a platform so that the trouser cuffs and leg lengths were properly calculated. Just outside this private space were two leather Chesterfield armchairs and a round polished mahogany coffee table. On a matching mahogany sideboard stood a bronze samovar. One of Young Mr Cohen’s chores was to make tea for Papa’s important customers. Often late in the afternoon I would find Papa and a customer, or sometimes even a fellow neighborhood retailer, sitting in the armchairs while they both alternated a sip of tea with a puff on a cigar while they discussed the news of the day. Mama said it was Papa’s Kaffeeklatsch – coffee chat - but it was always tea that Papa would drink. I remember he would drink his herbata Polish style, sugary sweet with a slice of lemon.
One could, though, always smell the coffee that Old Mister Cohen brewed in the back workroom. He would make the coffee in the old country style, too, by putting a spoonful or two of ground coffee into a glass and filling it up with boiling water. To keep the clatter of sewing machines from disturbing the tranquillity of Papa’s store. Papa had installed heavy padded doors with a small airlock the size of a closet between the workroom and the store. One door swung into the workroom and the other into the store, and the space between was large enough for a man with a roll of fabric to stand between them. In that way there was always a door closed between the two rooms. However there were accidental occasions when both doors were opened together and the clamor of the sewing machines, along with the pungent aroma of strong Polish style coffee would drift into the main public area of the store. When a door closed the clatter would be abruptly silenced, but the rich smell of coffee would linger and mingle with the gentle aromas of floor wax, furniture polish, Brasso and new leather, and men’s cologne. You know, I think it’s the smell of Papa’s store that I remember most.
Each afternoon I would go through the main store, into the back workroom, which, deceptively, was larger than the front public area, and up the rear stairs to our apartment on the second floor. Mama would always have a glass of milk and maybe a plate of taiglech, little cakes dipped in honey, or maybe some borekes, tasty cheese filled pastries, waiting for me. I was a Ben-yokhid, an only child, and I supposed Mama spoiled me. After scoffing the treats, and telling Mama that her treats were “Ta'am gan eyden”, “a taste of the Garden of Eden”, I’d rush back downstairs to begin my daily chores in Papa’s store.
I would begin in the back workroom, tidying away used rolls of fabric, and sweeping the floor. I was always careful to ensure that I managed to sweep away all the little cotton threads that littered the floor, teasing them from the grooves in the wooden floor. The lady machinists would look up from their sewing as I passed and smile.
One afternoon as I swept, with my head down concentrating on the floor, I pushed through the heavy door into the store and bumped straight into someone.
“What the fuck, chooch?” A loud, raspy voice boomed in the silence of Papa’s store.
I looked up at a huge burly Italian-looking man, who was holding a revolver. I gulped and simply stood there, motionless. A man with a gun in Papa’s store!
Old Mister Cohen came bustling out from the measuring space, and before the curtain fell closed behind him I glimpsed another Italian-looking man standing coatless on the measuring platform. Old Mister Cohen came over to me, “Oy”, he said, “With the broom already”. And then to the heavy-set man he said, “It’s alright, it’s alright, he’s just a boy. Don Messana said that you should wait outside with the other gentleman.”
I managed to mumble, “Sorry, sir,” as the Italian holstered his gun inside his suit coat. He stared at Old Mister Cohen, and then at me, before saying, “Yeah, I think I’ll get me some air.”
I kept my head down, busily sweeping, while he made his way outside.
As the door closed behind him, and Old Mister Cohen returned to Papa’s measuring nook, Young Mister Cohen, who had been studiously polishing the coffee table throughout the encounter, nervously motioned for me to follow him, and led me into the space between the store and workroom doors.
“Listen, boychik,” he whispered. “You need to have your wits about you over the next few weeks. In there,” and he gestured towards the curtained space where Papa was measuring, “In there is a real Macher – an important person. It’s ‘Rocco the Boss’, Don Messana. Mister Messana to you. Both The Brain and Jimmy Walker recommended your father to him. Now you know that The Brain has been good to your father, and trouble, God forbid, he won’t want. The problem, boychik, is that Brooklyn is the D'Aquilla family’s dorf. The Brain can move anywhere, anywhere to collect his debts, anywhere to place a bet. He gets on with all the Italian families. But between the families it’s different, if Toto D'Aquilla finds Rocco Messana and his crew even in Brooklyn there could be big trouble.”
“Shouldn’t Papa go to Mister Messana’s then? Wouldn’t that save having men with guns in the store?”
“You know your father, ‘If they want a suit made by Mosze Kravitz then they can come to Brooklyn.’ And that goes for Don Messana, as well. I would imagine that wouldn’t have pleased Messana, but apparently The Brain and The Mayor convinced Messana your father’s skills were worth a little effort. And now that your father is considered Jimmy Walker’s personal tailor, well, everyone of importance wants him to make a suit for them. Look there’s two guys out front with guns; you met one of them, Messana’s bodyguards. I heard The Brain tell your father that he doesn’t think the D'Aquilla family wants trouble, there’s a peace between the families at the moment. But just keep your wits about you, already.”
We both went back into the store, Young Mister Cohen to continue his furniture polishing, and I returned to my sweeping. I deliberately edged my way towards the measuring space, hoping to hear some of the conversation. After all, everyone in New York had heard of “Rocco the Boss”, Mister Messana, the Don, and, oy vey, tomorrow what a story I could tell my friends at school.
As I drew near the curtains they suddenly parted and my father stepped out followed by Old Mister Cohen and Don Messana.
I gulped and greeted my father, “Shalom, Tatteleh.”
“Ah, Keppele,” Keppele or “Little Head” was his pet name for me. “Ah, Keppele,” he said. “You’re home from school. Good. Soon I’ll be needing you to help bring out some rolls for showing. I’ll call you soon.”
Old Mister Cohen went through into the rear workroom while Papa showed Don Messana to the sitting area, where Young Mister Cohen poured them both a glass of tea. The Don took a silver flask from inside his coat, “Say Kravitz, would you enjoy some Canadian whisky in that? I know I would.”
“Thank you, no,” my father replied.
“You’re a strange one Mister Kravitz, but Arnold swears you’re the best damn tailor in New York.”
“Ah, Don Messana, Mister R is a very good customer.”
“Yeah, Arnold tells me you’re a ‘friend of the family’. He ain’t steered me wrong yet. Ha! He’s done right by me ever since the 1919 World Series!” And he laughed so hard he nearly spilled his whisky laced glezel tai.
After he recovered his composure, the Don continued, “Well, Mister Kravitz, he better be right about you. Madonna Mia, I don’t come here to another outfit’s playground for some chooch to give me agita, capeesh? So here’s to a happy association, eh? Salud.” And he raised his glass.
At that time not a word of that did I understand, but Young Mister Cohen, who had some Italian-American friends down 16th Avenue over 60th, later explained it to me. Even today it still impresses me that my father was held in such regard, such respect, that powerful mobsters came to him, rather than being dragged to them. One thing my father certainly had was chutzpah.
“L'chei-im,” my father responded, placed his glass on the table and leaned towards the Don, “Now about your suit. I have some wonderful cloth just in from Italy. I thought you may prefer Italian rather than English. The mill is only a few years old but I have had correspondence with the family, a Signor Pietro Loro Piana. I think he is producing some of the finest quality textiles available, and I know Don Messana that you appreciate only the most superlative quality. Now it’s rather expensive, but it is certainly the very, very best virgin wool. Signor Loro Piana’s not only chooses the best wool, he has engineered a mill that can spin wool finer than it's ever been spun before. Ah, but Don Messana, I see I’m boring you with detail Let me show you. Issy,” and he beckoned to Young Mister Cohen, “Fetch the Loro Piana worsted roll, bihta.”
I joined Young Mister Cohen in the workroom and together we managed to get the roll of fabric down from the high storage shelves along the rear wall.
Addressing his father, who was seated on a high stool at a cutting table, Young Mister Cohen complained, “Why do we have to schlep the whole roll? Why don’t we have swatches of sample fabrics?”
“Well, for one, Issy,” Old Mister Cohen replied, “I’m not cutting a piece from that roll. Cheap it’s not! And besides Mister Kravitz and I believe to show a customer the whole roll is best. They can feel it, touch it, you can drape it over their chest to give them an idea of the look, the pattern, the quality, that it’s got substance. You can’t know all that from a handkerchief!”
Young Mister Cohen and I were about to leave when Old Mister Cohen added, “And come back and get that roll up there, the brown worsted with the yellow pinstripe, to show the Don as well.”
“But Mister Kravitz didn’t ask for that, just this one.” Young Mister Cohen complained.
“You should know, Issy, and you’ll come to know, boychik,” Old Mister Cohen said, looking intently at me, “Your father, boychik, not is he only the best tailor in all of New York, he’s a klug soycher – a smart business man-, too. You think he’s going to let that goy parech walk out with just one suit?” Old Mister Cohen chuckled, “You watch, by the time this whole transaction is over there’ll be at least two suits, some shirts, maybe an overcoat. Who knows? By the time your father has finished his shpiel this Don person will have taken the whole shmear. And he’ll come back again, and again, for more.”
Young Mister Cohen and I carried the roll out for Papa to show Don Messana.
“Of course I could make your suit in cashmere,” Papa said to the Don, “but it will quickly ruin. Feel this. This is superb, the best. Ah, the color, you see, a nice dark blue with this elegant pinstripe. And you, you have the build to carry off a tailored double-breasted. Why you say? It’s your broad shoulders. Now double-breasted suit jackets should always have peak lapels, that’s lapels pointed at an upward angle. I’ll shape the jacket at the waist, and with peaked lapels, that accentuates the shoulders. And yes, without spoiling the drape I can give the coat extra room on the left chest for your-- um, your hardware.”
Papa turned to us, and I could see the twinkle in his eye. “Yingler - Boys,” he said, “You can return this roll and ask Mister Cohen for the roll I suggested earlier.”
Papa turned back to Don Messana, and as the padded door to the workroom closed behind me I heard Papa say, “If I may, I would also suggest we do a smart single breasted suit. Yes, three-piece like the double-breasted. I have the perfect cloth for it. It will mean, of course, more fitting time…”
Over the next few weeks, Don Messana came to Papa’s store two or three times a week for measurings and fittings. Strangely, each time he came no other customers ever entered the store.
I found the reason why one day when I was sweeping the sidewalk out front of the store. I had just said a pleasant hello to the Don’s two bodyguards who were always positioned outside, and who I now knew by name and would always say hello to when I swept the sidewalk, when Mister Kramer came towards the doorway.
“Shalom,” I greeted him.
“Alaichem sholom.” Mister Kramer replied.
“Vi gait es eich? - How are you?”
“Me krechts, me geht veyter - I complain and I keep going,“ and as he reached out towards the front door’s brass push plate, one of Don Messana’s bodyguards, the one who I now knew as “Lucky”, the one I had previously bumped into, put his hand on Mister Kramer’s shoulder.
“Yo, whatcha friggin’ doin’ old man. Get lost, tha store’s closed.”
I think Mister Kramer was about to protest, but he simply looked up at the bulk of the big Italian, turned and shuffled back to his grocery store. Lucky and his partner laughed.
I heard Mister Kramer mutter as he passed by me, “May all your teeth fall out except one, so that you can have a toothache, God forbid.” But I don’t think he was talking to me.
Another time I was sweeping the sidewalk when I overhead Lucky say to the other Italian, “Yo, Frankie, that black Packard, ain’t that the third time it’s passed by? Ya think it might be trouble?”
“Yeah, could be.”
“Fuck could be! It is! Betcha it’s dem D'Aquilla morons.”
“Should we tell Rocco?”
“Fuck no, Mamaluke, just keep ya eyes peeled and your piece handy, eh.”
From that day on I thought it prudent that whenever Don Messana was around I shouldn’t be out in the open.
On the days when Don Messana was there for a fitting, and I was working inside the store, I would overhear my father’s gentle shpiel.
“Ah, now the suit pants. It’s not simply legroom and on which side you dress. A double-breasted suit demands a trouser with a pleat at the waist and good hefty cuffs. The suit jacket can be too imposing and will look top-heavy without the pleat or the cuff. And of course because of the cut of the trousers and the cuffs, people will also notice your shoes. I have a wonderful pair of Oxfords that have just come in…”
On another occasion as Papa and the Don sipped their glasses of tea after a fitting, I heard papa say, “Now, truly, a fine silk tailor-made shirt will make your outfit complete. A hand-made shirt is a valuable garment, Don Messana, and is an investment in quality, and, if may say, enhances one’s reputation as a gentleman.”
The Don nodded sagely as Papa reeled him in, “As well as a couple in silk, I think a few tailored shirts in fine cotton will assist you to be very comfortably well dressed. Maybe one or two with French cuffs as well, with cuff links that reflect your personality. I believe I have just the pair for you in the cabinet over there…”
Papa worked hard over those weeks, marking out the fabric himself, doing all the cutting and sewing. Mama would say to Papa over supper, before he disappeared back downstairs to the workroom to toil until nearly midnight, “You work too hard. Why do work so late? I never see you.”
“Ah, but bubelah, this will be my best suit ever. After everyone sees this suit they will want only to come to Mosze Kravitz. I will be a vazhneh tailor. They will think I’m the most excellent tailor in all of America. Yes, this will be my very best suit. One I will be remembered for.”
Finally the day came when Don Messana’s suits were ready. After school I helped Young Mister Cohen parcel up the shirts, underwear, shoes, socks, garters, suspenders, the exquisite camel-hair overcoat that Don Messana was drawn to after Papa left it hanging conspicuously over the arm of one the Chesterfields, cufflinks, watch chain, silk ties, and even a fedora that Papa personally blocked for him.
Don Messana arrived at the store just as Young Mister Cohen was hanging the double-breasted suit in the garment bag.
Papa greeted him and they sat at the coffee table with a glass of tea while the Don settled the account. I saw Papa deftly pocket a huge wad of cash.
Papa said, “Now Don Messana, why do you want to wear that old shmate?” and Papa gestured dismissively at the not too unshabby suit the Don was wearing. “Wouldn’t you prefer to wear your fine new double-breasted suit home?”
“You know, Kravitz, I think I would like to wear it now. I got a meet at the Park Central Hotel with Arnold.” He chuckled, “I’ll show him who’s the classy dresser!”
Young Mister Cohen took the suit from the garment bag and took it into the measuring area. He unwrapped a shirt, selected a tie, cufflinks, tiepin, socks, garters and shoes, and the new fedora, and laid them all out in the space as well.
When Don Messana had changed, he stood for moment admiring himself in a full length mirror, while Papa and Old Mister Cohen fussed around him, straightening his tie, pulling taut the suit coat, ensuring the perfect amount of shirt cuff was showing from the coat sleeve, and adjusting the tilt of his hat.
The change was remarkable. The Don looked… well, the Don looked elegant, not like some squat ugly mobster at all. The cut of the suit was so superb that it redefined his physique; he looked like some Hollywood picture star, and richer than Rockefeller!
Don Messana shook my father’s hand saying over and over, “Grazie, grazie.” His smile was wider than that of that Broadway fellow, Joe E. Brown.
He told Papa that he’d send Lucky in to collect all the parcels, and we all watched Don Messana leave the store. Papa, Old Mister Cohen and Young Mister Cohen went through to the workroom, while I returned to cleaning the glass counter tops.
Then suddenly, oy vey, what a commotion!
Just after Lucky came in to stack the parcels on one of the counter tops, ready to pick them up, there was the loud rat-a-tat-tat of a tommy gun and the front store windows shattered. Lucky pushed me down behind a counter as a full-length mirror exploded beside us. The noise of gunfire and breaking glass was deafening and seemed to go on forever.
Then it was suddenly silent, except for the squeal of tyres and the roar of a powerful engine outside on the street.
Lucky and I crawled from behind the counter and, as I stood re-adjusting my yamulka, I saw the devastation of Papa’s store. There were shards of glass and splinters of timber everywhere, and in the front window Mr Farpitz lay on his back, his suit filled with holes, and his wax-encased papier-mâché head smashed to smithereens.
Papa, Old Mister Cohen and Young Mister Cohen came from the workroom, and togther, slightly cowering behind Lucky, who had drawn his revolver, we all cautiously made our way to the front door. Young Mister Cohen, however, ran to Mister Farpitz, and gave out a loud sob. We left him crying and cradling the dummy, and made our way out to the sidewalk.
Frankie was lying face down in a pool of blood right at front door. Closer to the kerb was Don Messana. Rocco the Boss. Dead. On his back. Staring silently at the Brooklyn sky.
A small crowd of neighbors was beginning to gather and as Papa stood over the prone body of the Don, Mister Kramer came over to him and said, “Oy, what a shkandal! Mister Kravitz, that this should happen right outside your store. A shame, a gres shame, that’s what it is.”
Papa looked down at the Don, at the thick bright puddle of blood oozing onto the pavement beneath him, and at the holes, the many, many holes, and tears in the dark blue pinstripe suit coat from where little floods of blood soaked the expensive fabric. The knees of the trousers were shredded, too, probably happening as the Don fell on the concrete under the hail of bullets. The Don’s holey fedora lay beside him.
The Don no longer looked like a Hollywood movie star, but rather some squat, ugly, dead mobster in tattered clothes.
Papa said, “Yes, yes, it is a shame. It was my best suit.”