Read The Smartest Woman I Know Online

Authors: Ilene Beckerman

The Smartest Woman I Know (3 page)

BOOK: The Smartest Woman I Know
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ONE DAY MARLENE DIETRICH, wrapped in furs, came into the store. Immediately Mr. Goldberg hurried over to wait on her.

“Madam,” he said, “I recognize who you are and I must tell you I have seen every one of your movies and enjoyed every one. You have brought great pleasure into my life. Now, how may I be of service to you?”

Dietrich smiled and asked for a pack of du Maurier cigarettes.

“Madam, is there anything else I may do for you?” Mr. Goldberg said.

“No, thank you very much,” Dietrich answered, “you are so kind.” She paid for the cigarettes and left the store.

Mr. Goldberg turned to Ettie and said, “You know who that was?”

“Of course,” Ettie answered.

“What a thrill,” Mr. Goldberg said. “To think that I just waited on Katharine Hepburn.”

God, should I tell him?

Ettie knew about movie stars even though she rarely went to the movies. “Who needs the movies,” she’d say. I should pay money to go to the movie to see craziness? I can just stay home and see craziness. A movie about what’s happening downstairs and upstairs and out my window, no one would believe. Nobody could make a movie so good as what I see with my own eyes. I have enough worries without going to the movies. If I want a headache, God, I can just stay home.”

NOT ONLY WASN’T ETTIE a movie fan, she also wasn’t a sports fan. Every afternoon, the same men would come into the store, buy the evening newspaper, and the first thing they’d do is turn to the sports page.

“Sports?” she’d say. “Another waste of time!

“North Korea is making war on South Korea and all these dummkopfs want to know is who won a ball game? A man jumps up and tries to get the ball in a basket. He takes a stick and hits the ball so it should go in a hole in the ground. He takes a fatter stick and tries to hit the ball far away. He grabs a ball and runs with it and other men try to push him down.

On Delancey Street

“A woman would never be so meshugge. She sees a basket, she fills it with fruit. She sees a hole she fills it up. She sees a stick, she puts it someplace out of the way so nobody should trip or get poked in the eye. Somebody tries to push her down, she calls a policeman.”

If Ettie had no one to talk to, she muttered to herself. “So much money for a man with a ball? Nobody even knows the value of money anymore,” she’d mutter. “Nobody picks up a penny on the street. If Mr. Goldberg and me hadn’t saved every penny, we’d still be living on Delancey Street. A penny earned is a penny you should save. A dollar is even better.”


HEN THEY WEREN’T IN the store, Ettie and Mr. Goldberg went to their apartment above the store, where they ate, spoke Yiddish to each other (when they spoke to each other), and slept until the next day’s work.

Upstairs, Ettie had her radio.

“Thanks, God, for the radio,” she would say. “I listen every day. I don’t have to buy a ticket. I don’t have to go someplace else. I don’t have to stop what I’m doing to look. I don’t even have to sit down. I can be standing by the stove, wearing my housedress, taking the fat off the chicken soup, and the President of the United States can be talking to me.” Unlike other grandmothers in those days, Ettie actually spent as little time in the kitchen as possible. The store was what nurtured her.

When Ettie and Mr. Goldberg came from Europe, many Jews went to bed hungry. So for Ettie, the purpose of cooking was to keep the stomach filled. Quantity was more important than quality.

One day a customer asked Ettie what she was making for dinner. “Food,” she answered without hesitation.

“Eat,” she would say to me. “You shouldn’t go hungry. Nobody should go hungry.”

ETTIE COOKED BECAUSE she didn’t believe in eating out. “A restaurant?” she’d say. “Why eat out when you have a kitchen?”

One day a customer told Ettie about a new restaurant that opened in the neighborhood. “That’s wonderful,” Ettie said. “I have to try it.” After the customer left, I heard her muttering.

“I need to go to a fancy-schmancy place, God? How do I know what
they’re putting into anything? How do I know they wash their hands? In my house, you could eat off the bathroom floor. In some restaurants, you don’t even want to go to the bathroom in their bathroom.”

Ettie believed that food could solve all problems. “Feed your stomach, and the rest will take care of itself,” she advised. “It’s amazing what a few little prunes can do.”

Her advice about mental problems? “What you put in your stomach will make you feel better than what a man with a beard and an accent tells you about your mother.”

For depression, she suggested pot roast with potatoes and carrots. For anxiety,
and chicken soup. Up one day, moody the next? Try blintzes with a little sugar or a little sour cream, depending.

What she couldn’t understand was Chinese food. “Shrimp? Do the Chinese eat gefilte fish?”

Next to Tootsie and me and after hot tea and lemon, the thing Ettie loved most in the world was her own gefilte fish.

One day Mr. Goldberg brought home gefilte fish in a jar. “You crazy,” Ettie said, “gefilte fish already made! In a jar. With a label. From Brooklyn!”

Let me tell you something, God. The world is going to hell.

DESPITE HER OPINION about eating out, every once in a while Ettie would have an urge for a good sour pickle from Gus’s on Essex Street, so she’d take Tootsie or me with her to the Lower East Side.

We’d taxi downtown. Ettie didn’t ride on the subway. “When I’m dead,
, they can put me underground. Before that, I’m not going.” Ettie didn’t take buses either. “They make so many stops, by the time I get where I’m going, I forgot why I’m going.”

Sometimes we’d go for a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s on Houston Street. Sometimes we’d get a potato or a kasha
at Yona Schimmel’s. We’d always bring home
from Gertel’s Kosher Bakery for Mr. Goldberg.

Our excursion lasted only until one of us needed a bathroom. Then we’d run for a taxi and ask the driver to drive fast.

LIVING WITH ETTIE and Mr. Goldberg meant living in a kosher house. I was always constipated.

“But why can’t I mix meat and milk?” I asked Ettie a million times. “The cow does.”

BOOK: The Smartest Woman I Know
9.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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