I met Ed Milk when I was working as a reporter for a chain of community newspapers in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn in the late seventies. A week after he came on staff I was fired for having signed a petition for a writers’ union, so we never had the chance to get to know each other all that well, but after he was fired three months later for having signed the same petition, he called to ask me to help him find a job. I was working as the director of publicity for a country music station by then.
Despite the exalted title, my salary at the radio station was just a few dollars above minimum wage, and I never could figure out what I was supposed to do there, exactly; but I had a business card with my name on it and an expense account and I carried a briefcase to work every day. All these seemed to mark a sudden, unexpected emergence into adulthood for me, and having Ed ask me for guidance put the finishing touch on my newfound identity. I would help him from time to time with his resume and flip through my Rolodex looking for the names of people for him to contact.
Ed had always seemed pathetic to me, with those rosy cheeks that covered half his face in a red mottled rash, that shiny brown head of perpetually neat, silky straight hair, those clean white teeth gleaming out of his trademark smile, and those little hands and feet, and now, jobless, on top of everything else and trying so hard to appear self-confident and happy, he seemed more pathetic than ever. He was the first person in my life to whom I had ever felt superior, and I liked the feeling very much.
I used to think of him as an imitation man. He was short and stocky and he held his neck up straight and motionless as though he were successfully balancing a ball on top of his head. He always dressed in permanent press white shirts, tan chinos and shiny black oxfords, and he wore a tie–a clip-on tie–no matter what the occasion and no matter how hot it was. He was so enthusiastic, so eager to please, perpetually thrusting his little hands into grasps that engulfed them.
Several months passed with no phone calls from Ed Milk and it wasn’t until the middle of July that I heard from him again. My boss at the radio station was Chris Abramowitz, an unhappy man with a terrible temper whose opinion of me had quickly deteriorated as my extreme unsuitability for the job was revealed to him. By the time Ed called again Chris’s disenchantment with me had degenerated into out-and-out hatred, a feeling that had been inflamed by my failure, the night before, to do anything to publicize the fact that the entire cast of Saturday Night Live had attended a country music event the station had hosted at the Lonestar Café. (All I could think of to do at the time was to tell John Belushi that I admired his work.)
You would miss the Second Coming! Chris bellowed at me the next morning, and later on that afternoon he and the head of production, a smug, pudgy young man who hated me, too, had stood right in front of me at the coffee cart joking that what they needed was a real publicist.
I was sitting alone in my office trying to figure out whether or not I had been on the job long enough to qualify for unemployment insurance when my phone rang and the receptionist told me Ed Milk was on line three. Ed sounded very excited on the phone. He couldn’t wait to see me. When was the earliest, the absolute earliest, I could meet him. Time was of the essence. “Of the essence,” he repeated, his s’s whistling their way through the gap between his front teeth, across the telephone wires and into the receiver I had wedged against my shoulder and my ear. It turned out that that this time instead of asking me for help finding a job; he was offering me a job, or, as he put it: “The Opportunity of a Lifetime.”
I suggested that we meet at The Odessa Restaurant in the East Village. I had just discovered the East Village. I loved its cheap restaurants and its illusion of freedom and nonconformity.
Ed was already there, sitting at a table near the front, sipping a glass of tea with lemon when I arrived. His cheeks were as rosy as ever and he was emanating his boyish glow. The Odessa was filled with its usual odd assortment of people; in the booth to the right, where Ed was sitting, an old Hungarian woman with a black babushka tied tightly under her chin was dunking a piece of the thick challah for which The Odessa was famous into a cup of coffee, and, to his left, a girl with purple, green and yellow hair and a safety pin stuck through her nose was chewing furiously on her cuticles and I was trying to figure out why the old woman with the challah and the bizarre-looking girl with the mutilated cuticles both seemed to fit in just fine, whereas Ed stuck out like a sore thumb, when he noticed me. He motioned hurriedly for me to sit down, all the time exclaiming that he couldn’t wait to tell me what he had to say.
“First let me bring you up to date on what I’ve been doing these ridiculously amazing past three months,” he said, lifting his briefcase onto his lap and reaching deeply into it as though he were the master of ceremonies on some quiz show about to pick the number that would mean a free washing machine and dryer, a gas range oven, a shiny new Ford pickup truck and more, for some lucky individual.
“Exhibit A,” he said, laying on the table before me a community shopper with a picture of a smartly dressed young couple on the cover. The man was carrying a tennis racket in one hand and was mussing the hair of his delighted mate with the other. It appeared to be an advertisement of some sort, for toothpaste, or tennis, or happiness.
Ed told me that he had finally given up trying to find a job as a writer but that he had lucked into something far better. “Far better,” he repeated emphatically. For the last three months he had been selling advertising for a TV shopper in the Upper East Side. He had taken the job out of desperation, he explained; it was all he could find, and at first he didn’t even bother trying to do any selling. He would spend his days going to the movies and when he could tolerate it, looking through the want ads, and then, at the end of every week he would collect his draw. “It was like a paid vacation,” he said.
“What’s a draw?” I asked.
“I’ll be happy to explain that to you later, and anything else you want to know,” he said with a sanctimonious smile, “but first let me finish my story.”
“Okay,” I said.
“As I was saying, it was like a paid vacation, but then I started feeling a little guilty about taking Oscar’s money—Oscar’s the publisher, he runs the paper with his wife Ellen Clark. Everyone knows they’re married but for some reason they won’t admit it. Anyway, one day I decided to try doing some selling, just to appease my conscience, you know.”
At this point he leaned across the table, touched my arm with one of his little hands and exclaimed, “It was an eye opener, a real eye opener, Maxine. I was excellent, really excellent. And the shopkeepers. Right in the middle of Manhattan, the third largest, the most sophisticated city in the world. It’s amazing, really amazing. They appreciate it. They really appreciate it. When you help them. And you do help them. The advertising works. It really works. That’s what’s so satisfying about the whole thing.”
Then with an authoritative smack of his lips he removed the cream and sugar, the salt and pepper, the ketchup and napkin dispenser and the hot sauce from the table and lined them up like little toy soldiers along the edge of the booth. “Now I am going to tell you what we’ve come together at The Odessa Restaurant in the East Village on this hot July morning to discuss,” he said, and reaching into his briefcase again he withdrew a pocket calculator and a folded-up piece of yellow octag, which he smoothed out on the table. It was filled with numbers, graphs and charts. Oscar Bateman, a really great guy, a funny guy, a clever guy and a shrewd businessman–a very shrewd businessman–although you’d never know it to look at him–that he was a successful–a very successful—businessman–the way he dressed in ragged T-shirts and dungarees and with that heavy Brooklyn accent of his—you’ll see.” Ed took a deep breath and continued.
“Well, guess what? Oscar wants to start another paper in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and he wants me to go in on it with him as a partner. Bay Ridge is ripe for this sort of thing. Ripe and ready. Do you know what that means? Do you have any idea what that means? he asked rhetorically. Then, pausing briefly for dramatic effect, he continued. “This could be a million-dollar business, Maxine.” At this point he directed my attention toward the yellow octag and launched into a lengthy discourse on demographics and profit margins.
“The potential is enormous. Just enormous. And, Maxine,” he said, allowing himself another brief pause, “I’m asking you to come in on it with me. Fifty-fifty.”
The sweat was pouring down his forehead and he took a handkerchief out of the breast pocket of his jacket. (It was ninety-five degrees outside. The Odessa wasn’t air-conditioned, it was Saturday, but Ed Milk was wearing his uniform sports jacket and tie.) As he wiped his face he told me about his uncle, an entrepreneur, a millionaire, whom he had always emulated–the independence, the challenge, the prestige of owning your own business–except for one thing–in the thirty years he had had his men’s clothing store on West 32nd Street he had never taken one–not one single vacation. “Oscar thinks I’m crazy to share this gold mine with anyone. He can’t understand why I don’t want a bigger piece of the pie. But money isn’t the only thing I want. After all, what good is money if you don’t have the time to enjoy it?”
The first six months, he warned me, would be a lot of hard work. I could count on that. But it would just be a matter of time before the business was self-sufficient and we could hire a staff to do the selling. By then the paper would be able to just about run itself. All we would have to do would be to check up on things every so often. We could take turns doing that. We could be like Oscar and Ellen. They hardly ever had to work at all: Oscar spent all his time writing history books, and except for the two or three days it took Ellen to put the paper together, she spent most of her time shopping. Just six months and I could be part owner of an ongoing, profitable business. A six-month investment and then Financial Security, Financial Prosperity, Financial Independence would be mine.
“Now, Maxine. I came to you first because I think you could do a really excellent job,” he continued. “But, to be perfectly honest, there’s a woman I know in Queens who’s dying to get in on this. I work with her at Upscale. She’s a great saleswoman. But I told her I wanted to talk to you first. (You’re younger and prettier),” he whispered to me in an aside, his hands cupping his mouth. “She’s expecting to hear from me no later than tomorrow night.”
We both sat there not saying anything for a full minute, it seemed, motionless, frozen in time, Ed with his head cocked to the side, emanating self-confidence and good will, and me, rigid in my chair, overcome with a sense of irrational, impending doom. Financial Security. Financial Prosperity. Financial Independence. These were things that I had never thought about before, but now that Ed was offering them to me I wanted them more than I had ever wanted anything else in the world. True, it seemed to me that Ed Milk would be an unlikely source of great riches for me, but how could I be certain he was not? How could I not explore this line of fate, if only to be sure it did not contain something of value for me? And then there was that woman in Queens. I simply couldn’t bear the thought of her having something which by rights could have been, should have been, mine.
“How far into Brooklyn is it?” I asked. “How many subways would I have to take?”
With a tight matter-of-fact smile Ed answered briskly that it would be one and a half hours each way. That was because I would have to change trains four times. “But, remember. You’ll be going in the opposite direction from everyone else, so you should be able to get a seat for most of the ride.”
Twenty times I picked up the phone to call Ed to say that I had changed my mind. I hated Brooklyn, I hated the subway, I hated the thought of being a saleswoman of any kind, and the idea of devoting my energy to the sole purpose of accumulating money made me sick to my stomach. As far as I was concerned business was very much besides the point of what I had ever imagined my life to be about. But two weeks later, I was on the subway headed for Bay Ridge, Brooklyn at six AM sharp.
The air conditioning in the first train wasn’t working, on top of which it was crowded with people and there didn’t seem to be any hope of me finding a seat. I searched the faces of my fellow voyagers for a sympathetic glance, a commiserative nod, a new perspective, but all I could see in their eyes was vacancy and defeat.
I missed my first transfer. I had misplaced Ed’s directions and now, after making my way through a crush of people to the subway map in the middle of the car, I found the lower part of Manhattan and all of Brooklyn covered in graffiti. As a consequence, I missed my next transfer and had to retrace my steps in order to make the right connection. Twenty blocks away from my destination I had to board yet another train. The station was deserted except for a derelict sprawled on the platform.
All the heat of every day of that miserable summer seemed to have accumulated in the floor and walls of that dark station, which reeked of urine and damp and dirty cement. There wasn’t a place to sit down. My next train was on a line that ran so infrequently it had no schedule. Four others came screeching by as I waited. I walked the length of the station searching for a place to sit, but all the benches were occupied–one by a woman dressed in rags and reeking of stale body odor, another by half-eaten Kentucky Fried Chicken bones and on the floor under the other one was some form of excrement, animal I hoped. I turned away in disgust, accidentally banging my head against a pillar, and I wept.
Ed was standing in the entrance of the Bay Ridge Diner talking on a pay phone when I arrived at ten-fifteen. “So, you decided to show up after all,” he said to me with one of his smiles. “We were beginning to think you had changed your mind.”
His words made me light-headed with relief. “Yes, Ed,” I wanted to say, “as a matter of fact I did change my mind. . .” But before I had the chance to open my mouth to speak Ed handed me the phone.
“Oscar wants to talk to you,” he said. Then muffling the mouthpiece he whispered to me, “He’s really pissed. Don’t take it too seriously. He just likes to blow off steam. That’s Oscar.”
But the voice that greeted me exuded friendliness and warmth. “Welcome aboard, partner,” it said. “What took you so long?”
“The subway,” I said.
“Yes, yes, I know. I understand,” he said sympathetically. “Not much fun on a hot day. But don’t let it get you down. And don’t worry. Remember–and believe me –all this is temporary. You just have to be patient. It will all be worth it. Why don’t you just go and get yourself a nice cold glass of lemonade and sit down with Ed and let him show you the ropes. He’s a first-rate salesman and from what he has told me about you I’m confident that in no time you will be too.”
Ed led me to a table in the corner where he had set up a makeshift office–complete with a paper clip dispenser and staple remover. “You can’t expect too much at first,” he began. “That is the cardinal rule of selling. You’ll never get anywhere in this business if you don’t keep that in the forefront of your mind. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And times are hard and these are hardworking people.”
The shopkeepers hardly ever looked at me when I spoke to them; they hardly ever said hello; they hardly ever said good-bye, and if, when I extended my hand to them they extended one of theirs to me in return, the hand they offered was usually limp and lifeless. If they said anything at all it was that the last thing they needed in Bay Ridge was another community shopper, and if they displayed any emotion at all, it was amusement at my folly.
I smiled, I complimented them on their card shops, their pet stores, their boutiques, their restaurants, their ice cream parlors, their fish markets. I spoke optimistically about the economy. I asked about their children, their wives, their husbands, their mothers, their fathers. I searched for a bond, a common language, a level surface we could walk upon together and eventually–I don’t know how or why– I was filling the pages of the paper with ads. There were half-page ads from Bee Bee’s Hair Salon on Ralph Avenue, where “Hair is the Place to Bee,” quarter page ads from Ellen’s Driving School on 105th Street which advised potential customers to “Stay Alive, Learn to Drive,” a year contract (with the promise of a two-year renewal depending on results) for a full page spread from Frank Rizzo at the Pasta Palace on Bay Ridge Boulevard. Soon I was composing slogans, designing logos, pasting up the ads. I searched through clip-art books for hunks of cheese, plates of spaghetti, cornucopias of fruit, bridal gowns, cars and taxis. I made sure the borders of the ads weren’t crooked and I worked closely with the typesetter, selecting fonts and point sizes. I checked spelling and punctuation, grammar and syntax, and I always made sure to show my clients the final proofs before press time.
Using Ed’s secret filing system, I filled half a dozen little metal boxes with purple, green and yellow three by five index cards on which I noted the status of every store and restaurant in Bay Ridge, complete with regularly updated progress reports. Ed would leaf through them once every two weeks and in his chubby, infantile handwriting he would make notations about how to proceed with each. There were the yeses and the probably yeses, the maybes and the probably maybes, the no’s and the probably no’s, and the probably probablies. The no’s were my largest population by far and the only way of getting to them was to drop by unexpectedly. “To win again, you must begin again,” Ed had explained. “Never take no for an answer.” This was the governing principle of effective salesmanship. “Forget the meaning of the word. Just forget it,” he advised.
I never stopped for lunch; I didn’t even accept the one cup of coffee that was offered me. (One rainy day Mel, the pale, thin young man who manned the counter at Tom’s Luncheonette, a place I had visited at least a dozen times before, took pity on me and invited me to sit down and have a cup on the house.) If I was sick, if I had a cold or a headache or if my back hurt from the deliveries of the paper we would make each week in Ed’s dilapidated Volkswagen, I carried on–with Ed always close by, pushing me back into the ring, urging me to go the distance.
One day, while visiting one of my no’s–Don Lerman, the owner of a drug store who had bought airtime on WABC-AM for Christmas–a fellow salesman came marching into the store. Don was working on the Candyman display case and I was crouched beside him, handing him human-looking pieces of candy dressed up in business suits. The fame that WABC had brought Mr. Lerman had made a “believer” out of him and this seemed to be working to my advantage. He was on the verge of consenting to a trial run in the paper in exchange for a write-up on the Lerman Pharmacy’s upcoming fortieth Anniversary (“Lerman Pharmacy: Legend and Legacy” was the working title I had come up with) when the burglar alarm salesman came into the store. He was a middle-aged man, heavy, with tiny, startled eyes and a small porcine nose, red from the cold. He was impeccably dressed in a charcoal gray coat, a three-piece pinstriped suit, a polka dot bow tie and a gray felt fedora hat. He carried a cane–a mahogany cane with a shiny brass handle carved in the image of a ferocious lion. As he approached us a smile spread across his face slowly and evenly like ink in a pool of water and, settling himself beside the Candyman display case he took off his hat and coat and piled them high on top of a nearby shelf of chocolate bars. He leaned his cane against the wall and introduced himself. He was so self-possessed and so relaxed that he seemed more like an old friend dropping by for a visit than a salesman about to make a pitch. But after he had stated his name and commented on the weather, suddenly–as though a switch in the back of his head had just been turned on, he launched into his pitch.
He was here to tell Mr. Lerman about the Beat the Thief Alarm System, and with a gesture so rapid it almost escaped my notice, he withdrew a sample from his attache case. He spoke at a speed I had thought could only be achieved by playing a 33 rpm record at 45 rpm. He didn’t slur a syllable or miss a beat. His movements were swift and jerky and as he spoke his face kept on getting redder and redder and little deposits of spittle gathered at the corners of his mouth. When he finished, he took a deep breath and, seeming like an altogether different person, said in a soft voice, “Sir, do you have any questions?”
Don Lerman hadn’t bothered to look up the entire time the salesman was making his presentation, and he didn’t bother to acknowledge his presence now either. (Along with panhandlers and people with physical deformities, invisibility, I had learned, was the salesman’s lot in life, and I flashed the poor man a look of commiseration, which I hoped Mr. Lerman wouldn’t notice.) The pharmacist, continuing to ignore the salesman, put the last Candyman in place. The salesman repeated his question, carefully enunciating each syllable, the marionette’s smile returning to his face, his body rigid with anticipation. Finally Don Lerman responded tersely, “Not interested,” still not bothering to look up. He was crowning the display with the Candyman logo–a gigantic plastic replica of the candies themselves. The salesman’s face turned into stone and with the wind-up toy movements he packed the alarm back into his case, put his fedora hat on top of his head, slung his coat over his shoulders and taking his cane off the edge of the shelf with one very deliberate sweep of his arm knocked over the entire Candyman case, sending broken Candymen, some with no arms, some with no legs, some with no heads, bouncing, skipping, sliding and skating down the aisle.
It turned out I was doing most of the selling. Ed would sit at his desk all day, drawing up charts, plotting out graphs and sticking colored flags into a calendar he had attached to the wall with masking tape. Occasionally he would look up at me and announce that it wouldn’t be long before the business would be self-sufficient. Then we could hire a staff to do the selling, he reassured me, and it wouldn’t be long after that that we would be dividing up the profits. “The phone will be ringing off the hook before we know it,” he would proclaim in the strange new language he found so appealing. I would try my best to participate in his enthusiasm. I was, after all, his partner. It was, after all, my business. And so I would nod my head and smile, all the while thinking to myself, Owning a business. What does it mean?
Every now and then Ed would announce that he was going to make a sales call. It was the call that would be sure to put us over the top and in order to prepare himself for it he would go through a series of rituals. First he would go to the diner on the corner for tea with lemon. He would return with a styrofoam cup, carefully snip off a corner of the plastic lid and proceed to pace up and down the aisle sipping his tea until he was ready to make the call. Then he would march over to his desk, adjust his tie, put on his suit jacket, check his fly and kneeling on the chair he would sigh deeply and dial. “Hello, this is Ed Milk,” he would begin in the singsong cadences of an enthusiastic six-year-old reciting lines for his school play, “like in the drink. And I’m calling to tell you about Bay Ridge Today and how it can make your business grow.”
Once a week Ed and I would drive around the bumpy streets of Brooklyn in his broken down Volkswagen, delivering copies of Bay Ridge Today to the various locations he had so assiduously staked out for us. He would always talk about his plans for the business, dreaming out loud about what he was going to do when the money started coming in. He wanted to go on lots of camping trips; he wanted to go hiking in the Adirondacks; he wanted to buy a boat. Sometimes during our car rides together I would ask him about himself, about his family, about what it was like growing up in Brooklyn. He always gave each question careful thought, repeating it a few times before answering, and then smiling a slightly ironic smile he would proceed in his precise and measured way. He told me about his parents. They were both retired and didn’t have much interest in him, they never had, so he rarely called or visited them. He had a brother, who was a computer whiz and was rising rapidly in a small company in Teaneck, New Jersey that manufactured home computers and video games. He had a cousin who was starting his own public relations firm.
He never seemed to mind my questions; he liked talking and as we drove along he would often point out landmarks of his Brooklyn boyhood. When we made our weekly deliveries of the paper on Fort Hamilton Parkway he would stop off at Abe’s Deli, where he would order a chocolate egg cream and a jelly donut, and whenever we passed Ray’s Candy Store on Ridge Boulevard, he would stop his car at the corner and run out to get a pretzel log and a stick of red licorice. He was never sentimental about these trips to these old haunts of his childhood. The fact was he hated growing up in Brooklyn. The armpit of the world was what he called it. He made these little side trips out of habit; that was all.
We rented desk space in a storefront office on 86th Street–right in the heart of our territory. It used to be a real estate office and the remains of the original hand-painted sign announcing “Apartments to Let” still hung from a rusty old chain in the huge plate glass window that now had “Money Lent–Reasonable Terms” blazoned in white paint across it. The office was owned by Dominic Fearon–a loan shark who lent money at 45 percent interest. The office was one enormous room and the only enclosed space was in the back, and this was where Dominic sat, shouting out orders to his secretary Rose, who sat at a desk outside his office. All day long the smoke of his cigars filled the office with the foul smell of cheap tobacco.
The rest of the people in the office were independent entrepreneurs, like Ed and me, and we all sat separately together behind our rented metal desks, in our rented swivel chairs, pursuing our respective professions. There were Hilda and Marvin Shore, a husband and wife accountant team who spent their days in concentrated silence, punching numbers into their adding machines. There was Jim Barr, a philosopher, who had recently liquidated his pet grooming school so that he could devote himself to writing an Introduction to Barr’s Thought, which he planned on publishing through a vanity press based somewhere in Indiana. There was the travel agent, Minnie Hall, a spindly middle-aged woman with a hunched back who tripped on the ice the day before Thanksgiving and was never heard from again. The office even had its own full-time cleaning lady–a nervous, sunken-cheeked woman who would sit perched on the edge of her chair at the desk nearest the entrance, a torn mesh net covering her hair, a rag in her hand and a large green plastic garbage bag at her side–always ready for action. Whenever anyone threw anything into a wastepaper basket she was there to whisk it away into her green garbage bag. Ed nicknamed her Miss Absurd and I never did find out her real name or why she happened to be there.
Then there was Eli, a sad, sweet, gentle man with white hair who sat at the desk across the aisle from mine. Eli didn’t seem to have any reason for being there at all. He just sat in his chair, still and solemn, looking out the window. Every now and then he would call up his wife, whom he addressed as Mommy. The rest of the time he would just sit there with his arms folded across his chest, peaceful and serene like a sad Buddha.
Every so often he would say something to me. “You’re getting tough, Maxine,” he once said when he heard me taking an especially aggressive tack with one of my more recalcitrant prospects, and “You have so much energy, Maxine,” when, after making three dozen calls in a row, I was gathering my things together to go out and drop in on the bar and restaurant owners who could only be reached after dusk. On days when I sat at my desk, feeling as though life had no meaning while I leafed through the cards of people who had rejected me dozens of times before and were bound to reject me again, he would say in the kindest voice imaginable, “Building a business takes time, Maxine.” And every so often, out of the blue, like a proud father he would say, “You can do anything, Maxine.”
Memorial Day passed, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving and finally Christmas, the holiday we’d been counting on to take us out of the red, was just around the corner. I had been so busy filling the pages of Bay Ridge Today with ads that it came as a surprise to me when Ed mentioned, a few days before, that it had been five weeks since Oscar had given us our draws.
Ed told me that there was trouble with the contract as well. Apparently, the lawyer was still ironing out the details. He had laughed when he conveyed this piece of information to me: “’Lawyers!’” he exclaimed, doing the imitation of Oscar’s rough, heavily accented Brooklynese that he did so well. “’You know lawyers! They like to listen to the ring-a-ding-ding of the cash register.’”
Ed had a small loyal base of customers who continued to renew their ads each week, and every so often he would pick up a new client, but it was because of my efforts that the paper seemed to be on its way to becoming the booming business that Ed, with all his charts and graphs, was always saying it would. The paper was so packed with ads that we hardly had room for the copy–which consisted of self-help articles Ellen would dig up from old magazines and newspapers she had stored in cardboard boxes in her hall closet, reviews of restaurants that advertised with us and a weekly column she wrote called “Bay Ridge Speaks.”
Since I was the one who lived in Manhattan, delivering the advertisers’ checks to Oscar and Ellen was my job, and five days before Christmas I stopped by their apartment, as I always did on Friday, to deliver the ad payments I had collected for the week.
I would look forward to my weekly visits to their apartment in Tribeca. Oscar was always happy to see me; when Ellen wasn’t looking he would wink at me and blow me kisses in a playful way that charmed and excited me. I had just broken up with my boyfriend, and since all my time was spent pounding the cruel, indifferent sidewalks of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Oscar was the only contact I had with anyone who seemed to notice I was an attractive woman. I would get dressed up for my visits to him, and when I got to his building on Varick Street I would look at my reflection in the glass door of the lobby and put on lipstick and fix my hair.
Ellen was usually working when I arrived–bent over the kitchen table, pasting up one of the papers, or checking on the billing or polishing up the sales letters she would send out to potential advertisers. She believed in what she was doing and seemed to take pleasure in thinking that she was performing a service for the small business owners of Brooklyn and Manhattan and their target audience with articles that told how to channel sexual energies into creative pursuits, how to prevent boredom, and how to conquer anger, jealousy, insecurity and inertia. She was an attractive woman with very large breasts, who always wore high heels, pink lipstick and tailored suits.
Oscar, on the other hand, was a slob. His curly gray hair was always a mess and the T-shirts he wore were old and stained. He seemed to think everything was a joke, including the “paper,” and when Ellen would go on about how pleased she was to know that they were helping people, he would make faces at me from behind her back. His shoulders were round and stooped and there was a ripple of flesh separating his chin from his neck, but he had a roguishness that made me blush and fall all over myself whenever I was in his presence. My visits to the apartment on Varick Street were always brief, so I was surprised that evening when both of them greeted me at the door and invited me to have Chinese takeout with them.
Oscar orchestrated the conversation, the objective of which would slowly and skillfully be revealed to me within the course of the next two hours. Ellen was the first to speak. She asked me questions about myself. What was my major in college? What were my ambitions and did I feel that I was on my way to achieving them? Over chicken with cashews and beef chow fun, which we ate with chopsticks supplied by the restaurant that splintered when I pulled them apart, it was Oscar’s turn. He gave me a brief overview of his personal history. He reminisced about the early days when he wanted to save the world, and how when he had finally figured out that the world wasn’t worth saving he had set his sights on making money instead. Ten years ago, he had teamed up with Ellen, and together they had come up with a formula that had made them a small fortune publishing community shoppers. When Oscar finished making one point, Ellen was right behind him embarking on another. They took turns telling me how delighted they were to be working with me and how, with me out there on the streets hustling ads, their hopes for the paper’s success were even greater than they had been in the beginning. They looked forward to our partnership together.
Somewhere in the course of the interrogation, I revealed that I had a twin sister. The idea that there could be another person walking the restaurant-bakery-pet shop-beauty parlor-jewelry store-laden sidewalks of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn who was a replica of me seemed to have a strange, exhilarating effect on them; so I gathered from the furtive look they gave each other; the enormity of the avarice contained in that brief secret exchange gave me a palpable sense of danger and I felt overcome with a sense that I was in the presence of pure, unadulterated evil. To give myself something to do while I tried to regain my equilibrium, I bent down to untie and re-tie the shoelaces of my shoes, at which point Ellen started to ask me more questions about my sister. Were we identical twins? What did my sister do? Where did she live? Oscar followed and with bounteous good cheer told me that they would love to have her come and join our team.
Even though I am only three minutes older than my sister Beth I have always felt more like her older sister than her twin, and it struck me that I had just put her in great peril. The thought of her being wheedled into my little get rich quick scheme made me dizzy with fear and I felt desperate to protect her. Had I mentioned her name? I asked myself. No I hadn’t. That was good. But I had said where she lived, hadn’t I? And we had the same last name.
I was frightened, but determined to say what was on my mind and thinking about how I could possibly approach the issue, I decided to use my poor, helpless sister as a shield. I mumbled in a small voice, “If my sister came to work here, would she get a draw?” Then, after a brief pause, bravely addressing myself to my beef chow fun I added: “Which reminds me . . . I’ve been so busy, you know, selling ad space, you know, but Ed said something the other day, you know, about the draws? That it’s been five weeks, you know . . . . ” I trailed off with a laugh. Then, using Beth again, I said, “The thing is, my sister wouldn’t want to work without a draw.”
“No problem, no problem,” Oscar said. “Of course your sister will get a draw. And as soon as these checks you just gave us clear,” he said, giving the envelope I had given him an affectionate pat, “you’ll have yours. Money has been a little tight lately. That’s the way it is when you own your own business. Sometimes we have to tighten our belts every now and then. We’re all in this together, remember.”
“Yes. Of course,” I said, exhausted from the exertion but determined to press on. “And a contract. Would my sister get a contract? She wouldn’t want to work without a contract.”
“The contract! The contract!” Oscar said with the air of exasperation Ed imitated with such amazing accuracy. “I’m still waiting on the lawyers. Lawyers! You know lawyers! They like to listen to the ring-a-ding-ding of the cash register.
“But enough business talk for a while,” he said with a wave of his hand. “Let’s have dessert! We bought a special little treat just for you!” he said, going off to the kitchen to fetch dessert—Napoleons from the famous Ferrara’s bakery in Little Italy, as Ellen went over to the credenza in the hall to fetch a little box wrapped in shiny gold paper. And then, smiling a munificent smile, she gave me the gift and a card, which she urged me to open first. It read: “To Our Budding New Star, with Fondest Regards and Hopes for the Future, Oscar and Ellen.” The box held a delicate glass bud jar, etched with roses. I had just seen a dozen of them displayed in the window of the ninety-nine cent store around the corner from their building.
We moved into the living room and after Ellen went over to the liquor cabinet to fetch me a glass of brandy, Oscar offered me a cigarette, which he lit with the gallant flourish that had been part of the ceremonious flirtations that had endeared him to me. Then he sat down on the chair across from mine and, putting his hands on his knees, he leaned forward, his face assuming an expression of gravity I had never seen on it before.
He said he wanted to talk to me about Ed. What was he doing there in Brooklyn? He wasn’t doing much selling, that was for sure. He knew the kid could sell, for Christ’s sake. That was why he had asked him to join the business in the first place, not to act like some kind of goddamn glorified business consultant. I had sold five times as many ads as he had. It didn’t take much to sell this paper–it could just about sell itself. The formula took care of that. Why the hell wasn’t he doing his fair share? In the last six months he had added only six new customers to his client base.
I didn’t know what to make of it this outburst and all I could think to say was that maybe it was because I was new, or maybe it was because I was a girl that I was selling more ads.
“Why are you making excuses for him? Don’t you know Ed at all? Don’t you realize what he’s doing?”
At a loss for words, I blurted out that Ed was something of an enigma. “Yeah, he’s an enigma, all right,” Oscar responded. “He’s an enigma wrapped in a knish! You want to know why Ed isn’t knocking himself out pounding the pavements of Bay Ridge like you? I’ll tell you why. It’s because Ed Milk has no feet! I’m sick and tired of playing nursemaid to his delusions of grandeur. If he wants to play make-believe mogul let him do it on somebody else’s time and money, not mine. He better get his act together, or else.”
When I got home I called Ed to tell him that Oscar wanted to screw him out of the business, and that, furthermore, there was no business; there was no partnership. “I think he was just using us,” I told him. Ed refused to believe me. He said I was being paranoid.
“But, Ed, there’s no contract. There has never been a contract! Don’t you see? The whole thing, this business venture, is a sham. There is no partnership. There has never been any partnership!” Then I added, irrelevantly, “Do you know what Oscar said about you? He said you had no feet, Ed! He said you had no feet!”
Ed laughed. “Oscar says the funniest things.”
“Seriously, Ed. He’s going to betray us!”
“Maxine, I can’t believe how emotional you are! It sounds to me like you’re afraid of success.”
I told Ed that after I got off the phone with him I was going to call Oscar to tell him I was through and that if he knew what was good for him he would tell Oscar he was through too. And that’s what I did. When Oscar tried to talk me, his prize salesgirl, out of it, I hung up on him.
The next day I started having second thoughts. I had acted impetuously. Now I would never get my thousand dollars. I wouldn’t get my millions either. What a fool. I had just screwed myself out of a thousand dollars and a fortune, too. This sent me into a whirlwind of self-recrimination and doubt. I called Oscar in a panic to tell him that I changed my mind; I wanted the job back. He was very cold on the phone and in a voice made of ice he said we were finished. Then I think I begged him to take me back. I can’t bring myself to admit it: but I think that’s what I did: I think I begged.
I called Ed to tell him that I had just realized I had made a terrible mistake; he told me I sounded hysterical. He said that Oscar thought I was crazy and he thought I was crazy too and they couldn’t have anyone as unstable as I was in business with them. The sound of his voice, so cold and so formal, frightened me and I went back to feeling that I was right to have gotten out. My only regret was that I hadn’t gotten out sooner. Then I wouldn’t have done myself out of a thousand dollars.
I became fixated on the thousand dollars Oscar owed me. I knew he would never pay me and I wished I could sue him; I longed to sue him; I dreamed of suing him. But I couldn’t sue him, because the entire time I had been collecting my little draw I had been collecting unemployment insurance as well. Who knew what would happen to me if the government ever found out about my crime? Maybe they would make me pay it all back; maybe they would put in jail. These terrifying thoughts compounded my feelings of helplessness, but the fact that I could do nothing at all to avenge myself was the source of my greatest torment.
Ed called me a few hours later to ask me to give him a rundown of the week’s appointments. “That’s the least you can do, Maxine, after leaving us in the lurch like this!” I had reached a point, by then, of feeling nothing except this queer, all-pervasive numbness, and without thinking I took Ed on a guided tour of the index cards that I had arranged according to his special system. Every now and then he would interrupt with comments such as, “Maxine, I can’t believe your handwriting,” or “Maxine, you’re not very organized, are you?”
There were a couple of ads I had been working on in my apartment and Ed asked me to go downtown to bring them to him. That’s the least you can do! he repeated. He had a four o’clock meeting with Oscar, which would take about an hour. So he told me to meet him in front of their apartment house at five. I was in such a state of confusion by then that it didn’t occur to me to refuse. I don’t think I would have turned him down, anyway, because I have never been the kind of person to turn down a fellow human being’s appeal for help.
When I got to Varick Street, I noticed parked right in front of Oscar and Ellen’s building Ed’s battered Volkswagon, the one he had bought with the last of his savings to inaugurate his entrance into the business world, the one that would never start in the rain, the one that was always breaking down. The back seat was piled high with copies of Bay Ridge Today.
I looked in the window, suddenly overcome with curiosity to see what the latest issue looked like. One of the papers had slipped through a tiny space left by a partially open window and I pulled it out slowly, tearing the front page. The picture of the couple on the cover looked familiar and it took me longer than it should have to realize it was the same couple with tennis rackets who had appeared on the front page of the premier issue that Ed had shown me that afternoon in the Odessa Restaurant six months before; only now they were dressed in business clothes, carrying briefcases and walking a dog. They were as happy as ever; their faces still glowed.
As I leafed through the paper a feeling of nostalgia started creeping up on me, as though selling ads to the shopkeepers of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn had been the greatest experience of my life. When I saw that Tony Rizzo had decided to take me up on my offer for a half price ad on page eight, I felt a twinge of regret that I hadn’t been the one to sign him up. Randy, the owner of A Diamond in the Ruff, the jewelry store on the corner of Fourth Avenue and 75th Street, had also decided to join the growing list of merchants to put their faith in Bay Ridge Today. Bee Bee’s Hair Salon, Carol’s Luncheonette, Knitting Knotions, and Naughty Nails were all in their usual places on pages five and six.
It always embarrassed me to see myself listed as editor (Ellen had never honored my request to use a pseudonym) and usually when I looked through a new issue I would skip the masthead, but now I turned to the title page. Edward M. Milk (the “M” was for Maurice, a name he detested) stood in italics in place of my name. Ed was listed again underneath, in bolder, larger letters as “Ed” Milk, Editor and Advertising Manager.
Five minutes later Ed appeared out of Oscar and Ellen’s building. After I handed him the mockups of the ads, he smiled his toothy smile and told me to have a nice life. And then he got into his car and drove off.
I waited until I got home to have a nervous breakdown. I wanted to do something dramatic to express how miserable I was; something like shaving my head or cutting myself in some non-life-threatening place, but I was too much of a coward for any of that; all I could bring myself to do was to bang my head against the wall a few times.
I have never been able to understand exactly why such a relatively minor episode should have wrought such devastation in me. But it did. For the next three months, I lived on Chinese takeout, holed up in my apartment, immobilized by shame. I hated myself. I hated myself for being such a sucker; I hated myself for being such a coward; I hated myself for being so fucking friendly and nice all the time; I hated my entire stupid personality. I hated myself for hating myself.
My friends told me to cut my losses and to forgive myself, but I have never been able to cut my losses and I have never been able to forgive myself for anything. Then one day I was at the Odessa, of all places, and I ran into a boy I had gone to college with and we fell in love. By the time Phil came down from the heavens to rescue me, my nervous breakdown had evolved into a depression, but it wasn’t long before love cured me of that.
My new boyfriend and I would talk a lot about what had happened. He told me that money was shit and that a thousand dollars was less than shit. People lose money all the time—especially people like us, because we don’t care about money, and we don’t like thinking about it; we hate thinking about it, he said. As far as feeling humiliated, why the hell should I give a shit about what a couple of scumbags like Ed Milk and Oscar Bateman thought of me? Then he said that it wouldn’t be long before this horrible experience of mine turned into an amusing anecdote. And as for this terrifying encounter with evil I was always talking about: If I thought this was evil then I was even more naïve than he thought I was—not that there was anything wrong with me being naïve: it was one of the Hundreds! Thousands! Millions! of things he loved about me. He added that in fact he wouldn’t be surprised if receiving an injection of this tiny dose of evil at this point in my life would benefit me in the long run: I should think of it as an inoculation, a homeopathic remedy against future encounters with the devil.
Finally, he got to the issue of my lost millions. I was an idiot to think that a stupid throwaway shopper would have ever made me a fortune, but if this was such a big regret of mine, maybe I should just find out what had happened to the paper.
So one day, at the beginning of spring, I called up Tom Lerman, the drugstore owner. To my surprise he was delighted to hear from me. It turned out that the paper had folded four months after I left. He had wondered what had happened to me, but when he asked the funny-looking guy with red cheeks who had taken my place—what was his name again, he asked me–Ed, I told him. “Oh yeah. Now I remember. Ed. Ed Milk. Like in the drink!” he laughed. “Anyway when I asked him about you the little guy rolled his eyes and shook his head and said, ‘Oh her. She didn’t have what it takes to run a business.’
“The kid was always coming around, trying to sell me ads,” Tom told me. “He was always pushing some kind of deal or other. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. And he was always smiling. It was kind of creepy, that smile of his. Then the paper folded. And you know, the funny thing is I kind of missed the kid for a while. There was something about him that made me laugh. You know, there are people like that and I guess he was just one of those people.”