The Swordsman

The Swordsman

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The Swordsman

When I was about ten, there were a million things that I wanted to own. But it was in the 1930s and money was scarce. First and foremost, I wanted a black hat and mask like my hero, Zorro. I already had a sword. I made it out of a wooden slat, and it was always ready, jammed under my belt. I never went anywhere without it. I also wanted baseball cards, a six-shooter with a yard and a half of live caps and a crystal-clear marble to use as a shooter. My spending money was a penny a day for candy, but even if I gave up eating Tootsie Rolls, I’d never have enough money for all that stuff. Al and Maxie, my two best friends, came to my rescue though and showed me a way that might do the trick.

“Best bet for dough, Harry, is getting a magazine route,” Maxie suggested.

“Yeah, Harry,” Al chimed in, “go see my cousin Vito. He’ll give you a tryout.”

“I need a tryout, like making a team? For a magazine?”

“Well, kinda. Just go see him if you want the route.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Maxie pulling his sword out of the belt on his hip.

“Señor, you must fight for the information you just received. . . . En garde!

This week it was my turn to be Pancho Romero, the bad guy, and for that favor I knew I’d have to die like a dog. I whipped out my trusty blade and met the challenge with fury, but in seconds Maxie plunged his Zorro sword through my heart. I staggered and fell to the ground, dead.

The next day, still armed with my weapon, I went to the Paradise Magazine Company and was interviewed by Vito, the sales manager, seven or eight years older than I. He was still young enough to recognize the danger that I wore at my side.

“I see you’re armed, kid. Is it okay if I ask you a few questions?” I nodded okay.

“You got any selling experience? No, huh? Well, here’s your first lesson. In the magazine business, the big dough is with Good House keeping. You make a nickel a copy for a sale, and I get points from Paradise. Got it, kid? Good House keeping!

“How about Liberty and Colliers, Vito?”

“Not enough dough, Harry. They sell for a dime a copy. You get a cent and a half, and I get bupkis! By the way, Harry, you Jewish?”

“Yeah, Vito, does that help?”

“Sometimes it works like a charm, especially in Jewish and Italian neighborhoods. Remember you’re only ten, and you’re making a living. They’ll eat it up. Just remember one thing, kid: Stay away from Locust Avenue.”

“How come, Vito?”

“They hate Jews.”

“Why?”

“Got me, Harry. Just stay away. We’re poison to ’em. Jews, Italians and Irish—they hate our guts.”

I guess I passed Vito’s test, for he placed a brand-new magazine bag over my shoulder and adjusted the straps to my size. When I brought it home, my mother’s eyes were glued to it. In her old neighborhood, the Transylvanian Mountains, kids my age didn’t sell books with recipes and directions on hemming skirts.

After three weeks of sales, my record wasn’t too good. I sold one Good House keeping to my mother, one to my aunt, and a Liberty magazine to a neighbor who hadn’t learned to speak English yet. Boy, did I need sales! How did it look, walking around without a black hat or a mask on my head? I had to live dangerously and get out of the neighborhood. I made a big decision and decided to cross over to the forbidden land—Locust Avenue!

The scenery changed. I left behind tenements and entered a section of beautiful private homes with big lawns and strange flowers. They loved lilies. Tiger lilies, daylilies, even those great big calla lilies. Everything was so different from what we grew. Our stuff sprouted from fire escapes, in barrels, washtubs . . . tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers . . . and who could pass an Italian fire escape without smelling basil, parsley and oregano? Flowers? Nah, I don’t think they’d survive on our block.

I went from house to house, ringing bells, but no one would answer. Finally, a door opened, and a tall gray-haired lady asked, “What do you want, young man?”

My hand gripped the handle of my sword; she sounded a little too angry.

“I’m selling magazines. Would you like to buy a Good House keeping?

“It depends. Come inside and we’ll talk about it.”

My hand gripped the sword handle so tight I thought I’d crack the wood. I was going into her house. I had to be ready for anything!

“What’s your name, young man?”

“Zorro, er, I mean Harry.”

Now her questions came flying at me.

“How old are you, Harry? What grade are you in? Where do you live?” And then the one I was expecting: “What church do you belong to? Answer that one first, Harry.”

“The one on Tenth Street.”

“What’s it called?”

“Saint uh . . . Saint uh . . . I can’t remember exactly.”

“Is it called St. Agnes, the Catholic Church?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“You’re lying, Harry, aren’t you? You’re a Jew. I can tell.”

This time my hand almost withdrew the sword—I had to defend my faith. But I let it rest in the invisible scabbard under my belt. My sale was slipping away, and my answer was crucial. Didn’t I want the black hat, the mask and the new shooter? Shouldn’t I just lie and sell her the magazine? Before I knew it, words that shocked me came tumbling from my mouth.

“You’re right, lady, I’m lying. I’m a 100-percent Jew!”

She gasped and said, “Why didn’t you lie, Harry? I would have bought all your magazines. Just one little white lie, one lie and you could have sold your whole bag!”

My eyes were blinded by tears, as I walked out of the front door. Even gripping the sword didn’t help; the hurt was too deep. She called to me at the curb to come back, but I didn’t answer. I was in a hurry to get back to my part of the world on the other side of Locust Avenue.

Vito, who was Italian just like my pal Al, was so mad when I finished the story that he got on the phone and arranged a brand-new job.

I was to be the out-of-town delivery boy for Ryan and Steinberg, the biggest florists in Brooklyn.

“None of that kind of stuff on this job, Harry,” Vito said.

In the morning, I reported to work and had a two-minute interview with Ryan.

“You ever deliver stuff, kid?”

“Sure.”

“Is the sword for protection?”

“That’s right, Mr. Ryan, no one will ever steal the flowers.”

“That’s great, Harry. Thanks for the protection, and by the way, do you know how to use the subways and trolleys?”

“Sure.”

“How old are you?”

“Thirteen,” I lied.

“Kinda small, aren’t you? You been bar mitzvahed?”

I didn’t answer him. I was too scared about the subways. I was never on one in my life.

“Here are your first deliveries, kid. A dozen roses to Eastern Parkway and three bunches of violets to Lenox Road. I supply the subway fare, and you keep the tips. You know how to get there?”

“Well, not exactly.”

Ryan was a swell guy. He explained the subways and even gave me some pointers on getting tips.

“Harry,” he said, “take the roses out gently and fan them like this.” He shaped them into a perfect fan and swished the air.

“Do that, kid, and you’ll clean up on tips.”

“How about the violets, Mr. Ryan?”

“You can’t fan those; just make sure you get there before they wilt. Fresh violets are like money in the bank.”

I went down under the ground and waited for the Brighton train, which roared in and scared the wits out of me. I followed the subway map glued to the window and found the place on Eastern Parkway where the roses went. It was an anniversary present, and the woman I delivered them to cried when I spread the roses into a fan. What a tip I got—twenty-five cents! I could buy a black hat, a mask and shooters in every color of the rainbow!

Now for Lenox Road. The doorman said it wasn’t too far, and I could walk to the violet delivery. I followed his instructions and was lost in fifteen minutes. I didn’t know where I was.

The only thing in sight was a big church with huge doors that were wide open. Could I trust them with directions, or would I get that Jewish stuff all over again? I had no choice; the violets were wilting, and I had to find the address in a hurry. I walked into the church and was met by a lady in a nun’s outfit. She frightened me at first, but when she smiled, my fears melted away. Even my palm relaxed squeezing the sword. “I’m Sister Marianna. Can I help you?” she asked.

All my bravado left me, and the words I blurted out seemed to shake her as much as they did me.

“I’m Jewish, Sister. Is it okay if I ask directions? My violets are going to die.”

“Oh, so you’re a delivery boy. How old are you, son?”

“Going on eleven, and I’m Jewish, Sister. Is it okay?”

Sister Marianna restored my faith in humankind right on the spot.

“Stop worrying about being Jewish, and let’s try to fix those violets.”

She left for a few minutes and returned with the violets soaked in cold water and wrapped in wax paper. Not only that, she located Lenox Road and walked with me to the exact address.

I was overwhelmed. How could I ever repay this kind lady? She smiled at me and said, “Get going, before the violets wilt again.”

Suddenly, I unsheathed my sword and held it high in the air. She was startled.

“What are you doing, Harry?” she asked.

“I’m knighting you with a touch of the sword on your head.”

“But I thought you were Zorro. Isn’t knighting King Arthur’s job?”

“Sometimes I’m a king, especially when people are so nice like you.”

She bent her head down to be knighted, and a tear ran down her face. As the sword touched her head, she rose slowly and in a soft voice said, “Thank you, Your Majesty, for the honor bestowed.”

As I put the sword back in its scabbard, Lady Marianna leaned over, planted a big kiss on my cheek and said, “Hurry up, Harry, or those violets will wilt again.”

Mike Lipstock

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