Thursday, December 20, 2018
Ruth Weissman, mother of Barry, Donald and Bruce, was already deceased three years when I wandered back into neighborhood of Kearny where I had seen her often during the few years I drove picking up and delivering merchandise for Donald.
I had come to the area of Kearny Avenue and Belleville Pike on another matter, but nostalgia lured me to the place where Ruth had operated Donald’s Kearny Cosmetic Plus, one of a handful of retail stores he had launched after he started business in 1968 but had begun to close a short time prior to his hiring me.
Stanley, who had lived around 15 blocks away on the other side of Kearny had made frequent stops here and at the other stores – including the most recently closed in Rutherford – as had Stanley’s brother, Bruce, who I apparently had replaced when I came on.
The neighborhood over 40 years had changed, but not so much as to have lost its blue collar feel. There was still a beauty salon a door or two away from where Ruth had managed Cosmetic Plus, but some of the stores were the same stores I remembered. The men’s wear store across the street was gone, as was the housewares store, one of those was vacant, the other selling more upscale goods designed to ensnare the yuppie walking wallets as they made their way to and from Manhattan down the long hill of the Pike.
As it turned out, the owner of the string of buildings that included the former Cosmetics Plus was out of the sidewalk, surveying a world he’d owned for almost 50 years, and wondered at my interest in the place when he saw me there.
When I told him, he looked more than a little sad, having heart of Ruth’s passing, yet more importantly, he said he still missed her, and her assistant whose name he mentioned, but I didn’t catch, and could not remember even though I had liked her a lot when I made my stops here – perhaps her name was Cathy. I still remember her face and her remarkable manners, and I had clear memories of Ruth, who always treated me like a son.
Cosmetics Plus, the owner said, was one of his earliest tenants, and he was particularly fond of Ruth, who he called “a saint” even though she was Jewish.
He said he missed her, and the store even thought he had not seen them in almost as long as I had.
I took part in closing down the store around 1976 or 1977, and never saw Ruth or Cathy after that.
Yet for my first two years driving for Stanley, the Kearny store was a regular a beat as any, not just a source of goods being shipped there by the cosmetic manufacturers, but as a stopover to pick up and deliver paper work and sale items – and in high summer, I was assigned to take part in the sidewalk sale, where I rubbed shoulders with Ruth and get to listen to some of her stories growing up, most of which have been lost to the hazy of memory except those that I was fortunate enough to write down later as a journal in college.
I remember Ruth being small but sprite, and because I was still in my mid-20s, she seemed old to me at the time although he was only in her mid-50s. She would live to 93.
In a journal I wrote for college in 1982, I recalled a few of her stories about her husband Irving.
She was apparently more outgoing than Irving was – she called him reserved.
But she was very proud of his accomplishments and was proud when she got to accompany him to various functions such as the time, he was part of a grand opening of a hardware store in Teaneck he helped design, which featured a prescription counter.
“He was an expert on drug store design,” she said, though this sounded a little tongue in cheek as if she believed Irv sometimes leaped into ventures just for the challenge and was as surprised at the positive outcome as everybody else was.
Although Irving actually didn’t die until about two years before I recorded Ruth’s story in my journal, she claimed she nearly lost him in 1967 to what was then called “a cardiac ailment.”
“They even hospitalized him,” she said, blaming his condition in the fact that he tended to hold in his emotions.
“Then, when we were to bring him home, he started to hiccup,” she said. “And it wouldn’t stop. It went on and one. So, we took him back to get home. But the doctors didn’t know what to make of us. They didn’t have a cure. They recommended home remedies.”
These were the same ineffective things we all did as kids when we got such things – although he apparently didn’t try drinking out of water in which he’d doused a lighted match or tried drinking from a glass the wrong way.
“He put hot compresses on his stomach. He held his breath. He drank glass after glass of water, and it still didn’t stop,” Ruth said. “The spasms didn’t go on constantly. He might go on for an hour or so without one, but they’d come back, lasting from 15 minutes to a half an hour. He even hiccupped in his sleep and it was nerve-racking.”
Ruth claimed the hiccups had to so with Irv’s emotions, but she didn’t have a clear definition of what she meant by that.
Days passed and so one of Ruth’s brothers, Monroe or Leo – she mentioned both at various points in her stories – suggested a therapist, one specializing in hypnosis.
“After about a half an hour the hiccups stopped, and we thought it was all over,” Ruth said. “So, did Irv, so he didn’t bother listening to the therapist’s tape recordings left in order to continue the therapy after he was gone. Irv said he didn’t have time to sit down and listen to the recordings. He said if he sat down, he’d fall asleep.”
Unfortunately, in the middle of the night, the hiccups returned with a vengeance.
Later, the therapist blamed Irv for doing the exercises wrong that he’d provided. So, the hiccups continued for one week, then a second week.
“Then one day they just stopped and didn’t come back,” Ruth said.
Since Kearny at the time was still a foreign country to me, I had to rely on Stan’s directions to get there the first time, a route that took me down Route 46 to Route 3, then south on Route 21 headed in the direction of Newark.
“But if you end up in Newark, you’ve gone too far,” Stan warned me, clearly remembering my first day’s trip in which I mistook Harrison Street for Harrison Avenue and wound up in an accident.
Stan’s instructions had me turn off onto a narrow road called Mill Street and weave through equally narrow streets until I found the Pike and took this over the bridge – passed the Arlington Diner – and up the long hill to Kearny Avenue at the top.
Later, I would go down the other side of the hill, through the trash dumps of Kearny, across the stickle bridge into Jersey City and the Holland Tunnel and stops in lower Manhattan.
The Kearny store was a small shop tucked between several other stores including the beauty parlor, a clothing store and some other shop selling trinkets of some sort.
The whole neighborhood had a small town feel that I found attractive.
Irving was still alive at the time – passing away in 1980 – though if I ever met him it was in passing and most likely when a very proud Donald gave him a tour of the new warehouse on Kaplan Drive in 1997.
At the time of his death, he and Ruth had been married for nearly 40 years. Ruth would outlive him for nearly as long. But I’m sure, she never forgot him.
If she told me how they met, I can’t recall it, although it must have been in Newark where his parents operated a grocery store and her father did business as a junk dealer.
She grew up on 17th Avenue with her parents Jacob (commonly called Jack) and mother, Fannie Best (shortened from some more complicated eastern European name.)
She had two brothers, Monroe and Leo, and two sisters, Beatrice and Anna – all of whom apparently passed away before she did.
Ruth treated me like an adopted son, and I still have memories of her greeting me whenever I came around and sending me on my way with a wave, making me feel as much apart of the family business as Bruce or Barry were.
The closing of the Kearny store signaled a larger change that would alter my feelings toward my job, and eventually lead to a much more viable corporation, and lead eventually to my leaving, letting Donald realize his dream when he relaunched the retail aspect of his operation aimed at a more upscale cliental than the blue-collar types the original stores seemed to attract.
Standing there with the owner of the property I felt all that rush through me again, as if I had just missed the sailing of a ship but could still see the smoke rising from its smoke stack on the horizon.