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Dr. Ben Fine is a mathematician and professor. He also has an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University.
THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN
by Ben Fine
“Seltzer, this is'a Russo. This evening Imma comin' over.
Misha could hear the menace in Russo’s words. He sat for a few moments in stunned silence and called quickly to his wife Mary.
“Gevalt Mary that was the guy from the accident. He’s coming over to hurt us. He must be some sort of gangster. What do we do?”
“What did he say Mish?”
“Just that he’s coming over – gevalt, gevalt. What do I do? It was my temper. I shouldn’t have lost my temper. What do we do?”
It was 1931 and most of what Mary and Misha knew about Italian-Americans was formed by the newspaper accounts of the exploits and crimes of Lucky Luciano and Al Capone. Despite their friendly Italian neighbors, an angry Italian like Russo must be a gangster.
Mary, always much calmer than her often hot-headed husband, thought for a moment. Her older brother was always her go-to guy. He’d take care of this.
“Don’t worry Mish, Georgie knows how to handle these Americans. I’ll call him.”
Misha was my uncle and he was a bear – a big imposing but friendly Russian bear. Stocky and prematurely gray, as he aged he slowly morphed into Maurice Chevalier’s long lost identical twin brother. With an infectious laugh, he was soft spoken most of the time, but he had a sharp temper. My mother often said she knew when Misha was losing an argument – he started to yell.
Misha was married to one of my grandfather’s younger sisters, Mary. In 1917 she had gone from Bucharest to Moscow, amidst the confusion that was Russia in the middle years of the First World War to care for her niece. Mary, then eighteen, was a striking redhead, who had gone to high school in Connecticut while the family lived there and then finished the gymnasium in Bucharest when they returned to Romania. She was a sensible, level-headed young woman, exactly the type of chaperone her young niece needed. However, once in Moscow she became enamored with her Uncle Boris’s dashing and charming younger brother Misha, an officer in the Russian Navy and began what was to be a sixty year love affair with Misha Seltzer. Uncle Boris headed a wealthy banking family in Moscow who had successfully navigated the dangerous path Jews had to walk in Czarist Russia to succeed in the gentile world. Boris was thirty years older than his younger brother Misha with ten siblings in between.
After the communists took power, life became difficult for the wealthier bourgeoisie like Boris. Many Jews welcomed the Bolsheviks as the salvation against the oppressive and pervasive anti-Semitism of Russian society, but Boris, perhaps more banker than Jew, was an ardent anti-communist. With the war over and the Bolsheviks in power, Boris took whatever family he could and left the chaos of Russia behind and moved to Berlin. Misha, following in the ideological footsteps of Boris, left Moscow and fought with the White Army until its defeat. He then fled with Mary across the Black Sea to Constantinople where they became one of thousands of Russian refugees. By luck and judicious bribery, they eventually, in late 1921, wound up in Brooklyn, living with my grandfather, her older brother George Lebeaux, and his family.
Misha was a natural businessman and after an initial adaptation period to the quite alien world of the United States, during which time he worked as a housepainter and general laborer, he started a business selling sundries, hair tonics and such, from drugstore to drugstore. Hard work and business sense made the endeavor successful and by 1930 the Seltzer family, now with two sons, moved to a house on a quiet tree lined street, Greenwood Avenue, near Prospect Park. The sundries business supported them for the next forty years.
Despite his top flight business skill, Misha was a poor linguist, and for all his years in America he never lost his thick Russian accent. In the mid nineteen twenties his English was mostly nonexistent. The druggists he dealt with were for the most part also Jewish immigrants, so they conversed in either Yiddish or Russian.
Earlier that morning in 1931, Misha had packed his big blue Pontiac with drug store items for one of his daily sales runs from drugstore to drugstore. He used his back garage as a warehouse and there was a long driveway leading from the garage and the backyard to Greenwood Avenue. Misha made the right turn out of his driveway and headed to his first customer, Cohen’s Pharmacy on Ditmars Avenue. The neighborhood around Greenwood Avenue was a quiet residential one but it was still a task to negotiate the narrow, crowded, tree-lined Brooklyn streets. Misha was never a good driver, with a heavy foot, and he usually drove way too fast on the open road. On his sales runs, though, he had to be at most attentive, fighting his natural tendency to let his mind wander, in order to avoid the crowds of children playing in the streets.
Reaching Cohen’s he parked in front, took out a box of hair care products, and went inside. The pharmacist Cohen was a chubby bald man from Vilna who loved a good joke in Yiddish and loved to talk. “Seltzer” he boomed “what a beautiful day. Would you like a lemonade?” Misha loved to talk also but he had to watch himself or he and Cohen would kill too much of the day and he had many shops to visit. “Of course Cohen, I’d love a lemonade; it’s a hot morning, but just one.”
After Cohen’s it was on to Baumstein’s on Cortelyou Road and Coney Island Avenue across Ocean Parkway and then to Blum’s on Church Avenue. Church Avenue was a busy shopping promenade lined with stores and crowds of people. The pedestrians darted in and out of the parked cars and made the driving even more difficult. Misha looked at the crowd and shook his head. The heat was getting to him and he wiped his brow. Without paying attention he rear ended the car in front to him. He actually just rolled gently into the car so there was minimal damage; just a minor fender bender. However road rage is not a new phenomenon and the other driver, Salvatore Russo, short dark haired and angry, stormed out of his car and began yelling at Misha.
“What'a you doin' you stupid gavon? Look'a what'a you done to my car!”
Sal’s English was no better than my uncle’s. Misha, for his part, never took being yelled at lightly, and began to scream back at the shorter man.
“Dere’s no damage you fool. Look you can’t even see it.”
The spectators, who stopped to look at the accident, were treated to the sight of a big gray-haired man and a shorter black haired man screaming at each other in two unintelligible languages – from one side a goulash of English and Italian and from the other a stew of English and Russian.
“You gonna pay'a for this? My car is'a damaged,” Russo screamed.
“Dere’s no damage,” Misha yelled back.
The shouting then descended into pushing and then descended further into a few punches being thrown. Before it could develop into a full- fledged fist fight, a policeman showed up and pulled them apart. The big Irish cop had no desire to mediate between two hot under the collar immigrants, gibbering away in their own languages. As quickly as he could, the cop had them exchange whatever relevant information was needed, and then supervised their leaving so no further fisticuffs could occur.
Misha, too angry to continue working, went home for lunch and related to Mary all the details of his fight. Two hours later, now a bit calmed down, his telephone rang.
Mary Seltzer was ten years younger than her older brother George Lebeaux. With her dark red hair and booming laugh she looked and acted like her own mother Sonya, for whom my mother was named. Mary was George’s favorite and was considered the smartest of the Lebeaux children. For anything that had to be reasoned out they turned to Mary and Misha. On the other hand, for anything physical she relied on her big brother.
That day in the late afternoon Mary reached George at home, “Georgica you have to come here and help us. Misha was in an accident with some gangster – he’s coming to hurt us.”
My grandfather listened to the panic in his sister’s voice, “Martzika tell me what happened” he asked her in a calming tone.
“No Georgie you come here in case the guy comes over. Mish will tell you the whole story then.”
George of course would take care of his little sister Mary. At the time he was working a a shop steward for the milk driver’s union. He was short muscular and dark, and his fists, perfected by several years as a professional fighter, gave him credibility when he collected union dues.
“Don’t worry Martzika I’m coming right over.”
He rode the Coney Island Avenue trolley, which took about fifteen minutes between the two homes. Luckily, he arrived before the unwanted Russo. Mary and Misha’s house was in the middle of the block on Greenwood Avenue. Two stories high, it was bigger than George’s beachside bungalow. The house had a large bay window overlooking the street and a small stone staircase with iron railings leading to a front stoop and a sturdy front door. George walked up the front stairs and knocked on the door. Mary nervously peered out of the front door window, and relieved by the sight of her brother, let him in. From the small entry foyer, George ushered the frightened Mary and Misha into their living room immediately to the left.
“Tell me what happened Mish,” George instructed his brother-in-law.
Misha fell into one of the easy chairs in the living room and related the whole story of the accident and ensuing fight. George took it all in.
“Don’t worry – I’ll take care of everything.”
He then pulled back his jacket to show them his Colt 45 pistol that he often carried when making union collections. Ivory handled, it was a fitting gun for a cowboy hero.
In the Seltzer house, the living room had a window seat in it. The window seat was covered by a curtain – a large green drape. George thought for a few moments and scanned the room. He then pointed at the drape.
“I’ll stay here behind the curtain. When this fellow threatens you I’ll come out chase him away with the gun. Show him we can’t be bullied.”
Misha liked the idea, Mary was skeptical, but both believed George knew what he was doing, so they sat and waited. At 5:30 there was a knock on the door. George and his gun went behind the curtain and Mary and Misha cautiously answered the door. There was Sal Russo, but he wasn’t alone! Standing behind him was a short woman and three children – one a boy about the same age as Mickey, Misha and Mary’s older son, and a younger boy and a younger girl. Russo stood with a large pot in his hand and his wife had several grocery bags.
“Seltzer, Imm'a so sorry about'a the fight. I just gotta bad'a temper. We new people here, we gotta stick'a together. This is'a my wife'a Connie.”
Russo pointed at the shorter woman who nodded.
“And thats'a my son Sal Junior and thats'a little Connie and thats'a Angelo. My wife she make'a some nice'a dinner for us sho' you how sorry I am.”
Misha and Mary were completely taken aback and forgot about George standing behind the curtain. They immediately invited the Russo family in. While Sal and Misha talked, or communicated in their semi-English, Mary and Mrs. Russo set the table and took out the Russo gifts of pasta and baked chicken. Mary called in her two sons, Mickey and Oscy, who had been playing in the back yard. They began playing with the Russo children and took them to the backyard also.
George? What he could do? He stayed with his big Colt 45 hidden behind the curtain. How could he explain to a family who came bringing dinner why there was a man with a gun behind their drapes?
So George stood there silently for two hours, sweating and uncomfortable, while the Seltzers and the Russos ate and laughed in the next room . He stumbled out, exhausted and hungry, when the Russos finally left. Sal and Misha became lifelong friends. Inside the family it became a long standing joke, but outside of the family no one ever mentioned, the man behind the curtain.