Something of Valueby Arthur Davis
I was staring absently at the stained calendar supplied by Denninger's Leather Polish when a high-pitched metallic wail followed by the agonizing rasp of metal tearing against metal broke the morning silence. I had been working under the Third Avenue elevated train in Manhattan long enough to recognize the sound of tragedy.
Outside Leon Trebino's small luggage shop, air was suspended in time, and people ducked instinctively, seeking shelter from the expectation of debris raining down from above.
Sam Cusack looked up from his workbench. He had spent the much of 1938 secreting his family out of Germany before Hitler annexed Austria, and had developed an acute sense about what events warranted his immediate attention. We stared at each other waiting for an explanation. It was exactly nine-twenty, August 29, 1939.
"What's going on here?" Trebino bellowed, parting the curtain leading to his cleft of an office. "I give either of you a day off?"
I tended to my sales journal and organizing counter samples, Sam to the pile of repairs at his side.Trebino opened the front door to the shop. A tall man, his clothes fell in unflattering clumps over his gaunt frame. A gust of hot August air blew into the shop. He walked into the street and looked up and down the street.
Two and a half blocks south, at the intersection at 78th Street and Third Avenue the summer morning was filled with a haze of smoke and dust kicked up by the impact.
People were screaming and crying.Police cars swarmed like vultures to carrion.
Three train cars were derailed along the tracks above. Several were accordioned against the 79th Street Station platform. Another was partially hanging over the tracks. Hysterical passengers scrambled to get out of the subway cars; many others rushed to help the broken and dying.
The nation's character had been humbled by six years of unrelenting Depression. Though I was living alone in a small, one room apartment over Mills Pharmacy a dozen blocks away, I knew that getting married next year would be impossible without a job.
Sam was a very tired sixty-three years old. Having survived Hitler's early pestilential evil, Sam could easily manage Leon Trebino's nasty rancor. It wasn't merely that I felt so highly of Sam, though I did, but more an indication of how little faith I had in my own capacity.
"Maybe I would have been better taking my chances with the crazy little corporal," Sam would often say of Hitler, after incurring Trebino's quixotic displeasure. Adolph Hitler was still something of a distant joke to Americans who, after World War I, had been weaned on the rigor of isolationism.
I also understood that if there was a further economic downturn I, and not Sam, would be the first to go. I was a salesman—a likable but dispensable appendage. Sam was a tradesman, a highly skilled artisan. He would be difficult to replace, even in these difficult times.
We considered ourselves fortunate to bring home paychecks, however modest, at the end of the week. We both shared a fondness for the craftsmanship, the smell of fine leather, the neat rows of handbags, valises, and trunks with their bright clasps and heavy twisted handles. Customers measured quality by the weight of the leather goods they purchased and, like kicking the tires of a car to measure its mechanical soundness, I often slapped the sides of the suitcases so customers could hear the rich ‘thud’ of substance. It had the same salutary effect. Weight meant substance and substance meant quality, and for quality, you could always charge a few pennies more.
Sam spoke, as would a poet about the soul of the skins. The reptiles, amphibians and mammals that had been subdued for a woman's fancy, or to stroke a man's ego. He taught me about the chemical treatments that made the skins pliable, about the glands and hair of the beasts that wound up on the backs of the doyens of Fifth Avenue society. About textures, types, and tannic acid which animal skins easily absorb. He spoke about how the Egyptians processed their leather and the significance their skills played in development of Middle Eastern culture.
When Sam and I opened the shop in the morning it was like greeting an old friend. Sam touched the grain of the leather as if he were stroking a beautiful woman. We had an excellent inventory of belts and handbags made from cattle, purses and apparel made from goatskin and kidskin, boots made from sheep and lamb, and wallets made from pigskin. The finest deerskin, and shark, and horse skins from India, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia filled out the window display.
Trebino had long cultivated a fancy Park Avenue clientele who traveled extensively and were somewhat insulated by a lineage of wealth. Ornate monogrammed pigskin luggage and steamer trunks accounted for more than half of our business, with gloves, small accessories, and "penny repairs," as Trebino called them, for the balance.
"What do you think?" Sam asked without lifting his head from a pair of goatskin gloves.
"I think people are hurt. Maybe, some dead."
"You want to go see?"
Police and fire trucks were already closing in around the anguished intersection. Along the rails above rescue workers with crowbars, welding equipment, and axes threading their way around the derailed, unstable, cars. Sparks shot across the tracks. Electrical fires broke out up and down the line.
Sam laid down his glasses and got up and came to my side at the front of the store. "My God." He shook his head slowly and murmured a Yiddish prayer.
I spotted Trebino in his white shirt and baggy brown trousers loitering in front of Basset's Best Furniture.A great cheer went up when the first stretcher was lowered into one of the waiting ambulances.
"You want to get closer?"
"You want to get fired?"
"We're cowards, Sam."
"No we're not. We are brave men."
"By hiding from Trebino?"
"By staying here and not jeopardizing our jobs and family. We can't be of help to anyone out there. Only brave men can endure the abuse of the tyrants under which they labor."
Sam was three times my age and, much like Millie, possessed a heightened insight into life.Sam was the man I always wanted my father to be. Millie was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
More police units and fire engines converged on the site. People continued to pour out of the shops and apartment buildings in order to get closer to the accident. Those who couldn't leave their shops or homes leaned out of windows, anything to find out what had happened. Sam and I were content where we stood.
"I saw a train wreck in the mountains near the French-Swiss border last year," Sam said returning to his workbench.
"Was it as bad as this one?"
"For some, Howard, death can be a relief."
I followed him back inside. "How can you say that?"
Sam sat down in his chair, focused on his task, and pulled a heavy steel needle through the seam at the base of a red alligator handbag. The handbag belonging to Barbara Lawford Simpson of Park Avenue. Her husband was a banker. "A prominent banker," Trebino would exhale to the impressionable. When he was out of earshot, Sam would ask how prominent could Martin Simpson be to have a wife who argued and negotiated for every cent, sometimes forcing Trebino to cut his price nearly in half. It was often more important for Leon Trebino to be able to brag about who he knew rather than how much he put in his pocket.
Trebino returned shortly. Barney Fletcher, the heavyset manager of Nelson's Drug Store across the street, arrived soon after, impatient to describe the grim details of what he had seen and overheard.
"Those people were doomed," Trebino declared.
"It was just a matter of time for all of them," Barney added.
He and Trebino went behind the curtain and continued their debate before Barney returned to his store. They were friends. "From the old neighborhood," Sam would say. They would go to Gleason's Luncheonette on the corner for lunch every Friday. Once they spent two hours over a cup of soup and a chicken sandwich. Two hours!
I opened two small cartons of women's lambskin gloves that arrived from Paris last week. The seamless stitching and intricate designs were extraordinary. I wondered how much longer we were going to get shipments from Europe.
Millie would be ending her second class now. In a few minutes, she would go into the teacher's lounge for a cup of coffee and a cigarette while avoiding the searching eyes of Calvin Drucker. The overweight math teacher had thing for her. At the annual teacher's dance, I complained to Millie that Calvin held her too close in the one dance she had with him. I was upset. Millie found my displeasure amusing.
The rest of the morning was taken up by customers reclaiming their repaired merchandise and searching for bags and suitcases that would give them the best value. With each came a story about where they were when the train derailed:
"Just two blocks from here.”
“Boy, was I fortunate.”
“My sister was going to come into the city today.”
“I could have taken the train but decided to walk instead.My God, how did I ever know what was about to happen?” Barbara Fletcher, a somewhat prominent actress announced in her most flamboyant, theatrical fashion.
One tale was more exaggerated and dramatic and self-absorbed than the next. Each customer speculated about how terribly their friends and families would suffer if they had been injured. Life was so uncertain.
"Each day was an undeserved blessing that only the foolish didn’t respect," Dr. Harvey Berenson's black maid intoned then crossed herself twice before she left.
I listened attentively while Sam sifted through boxes of remnants for a scrap of holly green leather to cover a burn hole in the bottom of an oversized suede French handbag. Trebino was on the phone. He was on the phone more than ever recently. And the tone of his voice was different. It was lower, more personal. As if each word had special meaning and import. I suspected he had a girlfriend, in addition to an unsuspecting wife.
When I confessed my theory to Sam, the old man chortled, "Who has time for such things," and returned to his labors.
I could not dismiss the idea, or recognize the fact that I always thought the worst of people, if I gave them any consideration at all.
Sam broke the silence with a question Millie's father had asked me only last week. "If there is a war, would you go?"
"When it comes, will you go?"
Millie and her father insisted war with Germany was inevitable. I knew Sam did too. His only prayer was that it would not begin before all his relatives left Austria and Hungary. "You’re certain there will be a war?"
Sam finished off the lunch he brought each day in a brown paper bag. He never went out of the shop for a breath of air. He never left his workbench except to go to the bathroom. "I am a European by birth, and a rational man by nature. There will be a war."
"Roosevelt will never allow us to get drawn into such a thing."
"But if there is, and we are?"
The bells over the door chimed. I was relieved for the interruption. Two men entered. They were dressed in common work clothes. There was a sheen of sweat across their foreheads. I was not optimistic about a sale. I also recalled something Barney Fletcher had said about two men who had robbed a store not ten blocks from this neighborhood a week ago. "Good afternoon," I said.
"You fix suitcases?" the one with the baseball cap asked. His face was covered in stubble. He and his friend were about average height and weight. They were in their late twenties and seemed uneasy.
"We do," I said noticing a small tan overnight suitcase clutched under the other man's arm.
Double brass clasps and contoured grip handle. I knew it was at least thirty or so years-old but wasn't certain of its nationality. Trebino would consider it a good morning to have sold a piece of luggage like that. The man with the cap looked over my shoulder at the rows of neatly arranged suitcases and handbags.
"We can't get his mother's suitcase open. The lock's jammed."
I played with the lock. The handbag was not empty. "Sam, would you take a look at this."
"You don't want to damage the leather," Sam said, noticing that the face of the lock was already scratched. Cuts had been dug into the eye of the lock. "I'll try to work it open."
Trebino pulled the curtains aside. "What's the problem out here?"
"These gentlemen asked us to open a jammed lock."
Trebino took the suitcase from Sam. "You have your hands full with repairs. I'll tend to this. We can't lose any more time today, not after you two spent your morning watching the police do their job instead of doing yours." He examined the bag carefully. I could tell by the way he was handling it that the weight had already made an impact on Trebino. "I'll unlock it myself. You can pick it up tomorrow."
The one with the cap halted his companion from speaking. "We need it right away."
Trebino handed back the suitcase. "Then you can take it elsewhere."
"Why can't we wait for it?" the man without the cap asked, glancing nervously around the shop.
"Do you think that you're our only customer? I have bills to get out, calls to make. A box full of keys to search through before I find the one that will fit this old English suitcase. Or do you want me to cut through the leather?"
Trebino possessed a natural aggressiveness that bordered on belligerence. He had a way of putting people on the defensive that I admired.
He was a merchant of some local consequence. Millie deserved such a man. A man with a future. A man with a shop of his own. I had no plans or focus. I had a difficult time understanding Millie's accepting me for who I was, when I was so discontent with myself. I had known Millie for a year before we got engaged. A girl as pretty as she could have her pick of any man. Any yet she chose me. A decision that did not relieve my doubts.
Trebino approached them before they could make up their minds. "Come back in a an hour and I'll have it for you." He took the suitcase from them and disappeared behind the curtain before they could respond.
"Where do you suppose the two of them got a suitcase like that?" Sam asked after they left.
Sam carefully examined the box of leather remnants and plucked out a piece of stiff cowhide as if he had caught a prize fish. "Think a while, Howard. Some things are not always as they appear."
"You think there's more to it?"
Sam set down his scissors. "I think that suitcase came from one of the victims of the crash. Those two are scavengers and thieves.Give them a gun and uniform, the skeleton of a leader, and they’ll try to take over the country."
The world was a stage of inequity from which only the swift prospered. Trebino, disagreeable as he was, instinctively grasped the realities of life. He understood how life could defeat the bravest man, cripple the most devout, and humble the most worthy. Sam and Trebino immediately understood the situation for what it was.
"And if there is anything valuable in there, and judging by the suitcase itself there is a good possibility, it’s going home with Leon Trebino."
Trebino was probably already stuffing the contents into his pockets with the booty and planning how to explain the difference in weight to those fools. How many times had the man done this, stripped away some else's belongings while in the care of their trust?
I came out from around the counter and went to the door of the shop. The street around the crash site was now completely barricaded. Heavy equipment was being brought in to secure one of the train cars from collapsing onto the street below. The crowd had thickened but was considerably more settled. Black and white police cruisers and ambulances were everywhere. I wished I were more like Sam and less like me.
I turned and walked to Trebino's office and swept open the curtain without first knocking. Trebino was huddled over the open suitcase.A half dozen men’s shirts, two canvass bags held finely crafted men’s shoes and a leather accessory case were spread on Trebino’s desk along with a small wooden box and two cash-fattened envelopes. A smaller jewelry box was opened revealing a dozen pieces of glittering gold and silver jewelry. A large ruby ring stood off to one side of the table. I could see its vibrant sparkle from where I was standing. The circle of gold that embraced it was carved and highly detailed. It was magnificent.
The seal of each envelope of cash was cut opened.A piece of green string curled by its side. Trebino looked up like a terrified animal, jumped to his feet and moved to obscure the booty. "What do you want?"
I didn't know. I hadn't thought this far ahead. I had screwed my frustration into courage to get past the curtain, but it would serve me no further.“I wanted to ask you a question.”
"You were just curious, is that it? Couldn't help yourself?" Trebino sneered.
"I wanted to ask you something.”
"That couldn't wait, or do you think you can come into my office whenever you please?"
"I just didn't think Mr. Trebino."My marriage to Millie was evaporating before my eyes. Trebino didn't pursue it further.
I knew Sam overheard the conversation. I also knew Sam would make no reference unless he was first addressed. He kept to his work. I should have kept to mine. I was shaken and fearful.
I cursed Trebino. I could have dealt with them if he weren’t here. I could have put them off after spotting their scheme. I could have gone into the back, opened the lock and have been rewarded for my cunning.A fortune could have passed right into my hands. I could never tell Millie about what had happened. Only Sam and I would know. It was better that way.
The front door sprang open. The bell rang announcing the return of the same two men. They looked calmer, more resolute. They would not be put off as easily this time. Trebino must have heard their voices and came out, then drew them back into his office. A moment later, they came out with their suitcase and rushed into the street. Sam and I could hear muffled sounds of delight. Trebino was sharing his good fortune with someone. He was on the phone again. It had to be a woman. This time I was positive.
"I guess he opened it for them."
"Seems so," Sam answered.
I considered where Trebino might hide the goods for safekeeping. There was no safe, no box or space that could accommodate such treasure.Suddenly, my breathing became labored. I bent down to tie my shoes and took a few deep breaths. When I stood up, Trebino was at the open curtain.
"Sam, why don't you leave early? You have a long trip and the trains aren't going to make it any easier for you."
Sam stood surprised. "You want me to leave now?" It was three forty-five.
"Howard and I can manage. You go home. Don't worry about anything. Now go on." Trebino hitched up his pants. "Make the most of my kindness."
Sam switched off the small lamp over his workbench, washed his hands, put on his jacket, nodded to me, thanked Trebino and was gone. Three more customers came into the shop that afternoon. One purchased an overnight case Trebino had been trying to get rid of since last season. A richly-detailed, hand-trimmed Italian leather bag that reaped a fine profit but was conspicuously out of date. The other, a couple, looked around. The wife thought everything was too high priced and they left.
The second hand moved toward four-thirty. I considered what I would do if I owned the store and such a fortune. I would close early and never come back. If that's what Trebino had in mind, I was out of a job.
I jumped up as he came out from behind the curtains. "Yes, Mr. Trebino."
"Sit down, please. Howard."
"Is everything all right, Mr. Trebino?"
"Yes, fine Howard. I just wanted to have a talk with you. I'm glad Sam left early. He's been looking tired lately, and this terrible train crash will set him back at least an hour."
"Sam's a very hard worker."
"I know Howard. You say it like you're defending him."
"No sir, I know you value his work."
"As I do yours, Howard. As I do yours as well."
"Sir, about this afternoon," I began.
"No, please Howard. It was a difficult day for everybody. I know how concerned you and Sam were for those unfortunate people on the train. We all were. A terrible thing. Just terrible.”
"I got Mrs. Henderson to pay what she owed you."
"Yes.Good.Fine, but, you're getting married next year aren't you, Howard?"
"Yes, a perfect time of year for a wedding."
"That's what her parents thought too."
"Well," he said without actually looking at me. "Did you give her an engagement ring yet?"
“We had decided there would be no engagement ring, Mr. Trebino.We’re saving for furniture."
"Very admirable. Solid thinking. These days that's all that counts. I didn't build this shop on foolhardy distractions. Hard work, Howard. Hard work and God will reward those who keep faith with him."
"I agree," I said, unable to recall the last time Trebino evoked such a religious reference.
"Her name is Millie isn't it?"
She had come by many times in the last year to pick me up after work. Yes, her name was Millie. Now, can we get this over with? "Yes, it is."
"Howard, I know you two are going to be very happy. And if this helps, then I would like to think that I have contributed to that happiness." He handed me a small piece of tissue paper folded into a square packet. It was cinched tight with a piece of green string that I had seen earlier.
The thin packet had no weight to it. Nothing that would indicate it held anything of value. I began unwrapping the packet without asking. I folded the tissue paper back until the center was revealed. A pair of gold wedding bands. They were very beautiful and very expensive.Millie’s aunt and uncle had a beautiful pair and these two would easily shine next to them. They were certainly was worth more than I could afford.
"No. Please, say nothing. My little gift for your happiness. Yours and Millie's."
They were highly ornamented and detailed. The set must be a hundred years old. Millie's grandfather was a watchmaker. He would appreciate their antique value. The family would be impressed. We would traditionally have chosen a more simple, plain set of wedding bands more in keeping with our culture.But these would make the statement I wanted to make, but never could. "Thank you sir."
"I’ve had these as part of a trade I made with the owner of another shop in the Bronx last year before Sam started.I thought about giving them to you for some time. You and Millie will put them to good use."
I watched the man's pupils dilate. I'd read a detective story once where the villain's pupils dilated when he was cornered and professed his innocence. But that didn't change the fact that I had a pair of very expensive gold rings to show Millie's parents after dinner this evening. I will find the appropriate satin gift box in the shop and make the presentation more of an event.
Certainly, Trebino was buying me off. I understood that. I understood that as he had bought off the two crooks, probably with a meager portion of what he found, and which they would be happy to have without bringing greater attention to themselves. I also knew I could have been fired for my indiscretion.
By the time I returned to my counter, Trebino had his jacket on and was at the front door. "If it's not busy you can go home a few minutes early too," he said and was gone.
I waited until I was certain Trebino would not return then slipped behind the curtain. Trebino left empty-handed. The piece of luggage was resting comfortably in the corner.I lifted it to his desk and flipped open the lock.The bag contained the stack of shirts, two pair of shoes and several folders stuffed with personal papers.By tomorrow afternoon we will have cleaned up the scratches on the lock face and hide, polished the small suitcase and set it prominently in our display window.I was confident it would be sold by the end of the week.
I ‘righted’ Denninger's Leather Polish calendar which had been set askew by Barbara Fletcher, locked up Trebino’s, turned left on Third towards Mills Pharmacy and never looked back toward the unfortunate incident. I was certain by now everyone was safe and the survivor’s home with their families.
I was also certain, that, while the gold bands in my pocket were something, they were less than I wanted, though more than I thought I deserved.