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“Bewitched” Creator Sol Sachs on the Family Business: “It’s a Living”

Let me tell you a story.

 

A man was leaning up against a building. A friend of his asked, “What are you doing, holding up the building?” “Yes,” the man answered. “Don’t be silly,” his friend said. “Come over here.”

So the man walked over to his friend and the building fell down.

Which brings me to another story. But first, I must give you some background material. Very strong in the Jewish tradition, as well as in the religion, is charity to those less fortunate. Which is why there are so few Jews, proportionately, on the welfare rolls. (On the other hand, they are very high on the bankruptcy and contested wills lists, but that’s a whole other story.) To give to the poor is a mitzvah, which, roughly translated, means brownie points toward getting into heaven.

On a Friday night, a pious Jew will look for a poor beggar to bring home for Shabbos dinner. In my youth, I never saw a Jewish kitchen that didn’t have attached to the wall a pushke, a little tin box for coins to send to the poor of far-off lands. And in a bedroom, doubling up with the youngest grandchildren, is usually a toothless bubbe or zayde being saved from the old peop1e’s home. This powerful tradition explains why not only is giving a blessing, but receiving also is acceptable. It is impossible to give without someone to receive, isn’t it? This explains why the art of receiving is polished, honed, and executed with a dignified self-respecting efficiency.

This is the story. A Jewish man once gave a Jewish beggar a coin. The beggar looked at it and said, “That’s a nickel. You always give me a quarter.”

“I know,” said the.other man. “But my daughter was just married, and the dowry and wedding were very expensive.”

“So,” answered the beggar, “why should you use my money to pay for your daughter’s wedding?”

I don’t know whether that story is true, but it helps make my point. Which brings me to another story which I believe is true, although in all honesty I can’t vouch for it. (Have you noticed that one story leads to another story which leads to another and so on? That also is Jewish tradition.)

In a small town in Europe, once, things got very bad. As always when things go bad, charity is the first thing you cut down on. The beggars at the synagogue grumbled and complained but to no avail. The coins dropped into their palms grew smaller and smaller, and when they glared, the givers simply averted their eyes and hurried on. The beggars talked it over and came to a decision. There was only one thing to do. They went out on strike.

They came to their same places around the synagogue but kept their arms folded, their faces stern, and refused to take any alms. At first, the people simply harrumphed and said, “Well, let them eat their pride instead of bread and we will save money besides.” But after a while, the people became wracked by guilt. They coaxed and pleaded with the beggars to take their coins. But the beggars sat with folded arms, stern faces, and averted eyes, and refused the alms.

There were meetings, arguments, and negotiations. The people of the town explained about the poor business; they were already losing money; they would make it up as soon as things got better. But the beggars refused to give an inch. They knew their customers and they knew they were dealing from a position of strength. Finally, the townspeople gave in, promising to bring their alms up to the previous level. The beggars accepted their victory graciously and never brought up the subject again.

Which brings me to my last story. This story I know is true. I can vouch for it. It happened to my own family.

Sam Helfgot’s father was in wholesale dress goods in Chicago, the shmatte business as it was called by the people in the trade, and was always on the verge of bankruptcy and poverty, but at the last moment was always rescued by friends and family.
When Sam came of age, he went into business with his father. (Jews have strong family ties. You pass down your misfortunes, too. It’s better than nothing.) Business went from bad to worse and Sam got married. This may be difficult to understand for logical goyim, but Sam knew that if anyone needs a wife, it is a poor man. Only a rich man can afford to remain single.

They had three children, boom, boom, boom—you know how it is with poor people—two boys and a girl. Sam’s father died and Sam went to work for a cousin who was in the peanut vending-machine business. Sam’s job was to service the machines. He would collect the coins and refill the machines. He had the territory on the North Side between Ashland and Western from Lawrence to Belmont. The money was not, as they say, good. But that in itself is a contradiction in terms. When you’re poor, any money is good.

Then Sam’s cousin sold out his business to a man from St. Louis who had a son-in-law who was studying to be an artist but needed a steady income until he became famous.

The question might occur to you, Why didn‘t Sam’s cousin sell the business to Sam? Well may you ask. The cousin had, as a matter of fact, first offered to sell the business to Sam. Sam had said he would think it over. His friends and family urged him to buy it and offered to help financially. Sam agreed that it was a fine opportunity, thanked them for their offer, and said he was thinking it over. Every week when Sam was at the office to turn in his collections and get more peanuts, his cousin would ask, “So, Sam? Say already.”

“I’m thinking it over,” Sam would say. But the man from St. Louis couldn’t wait. His daughter was pregnant again, and the first baby wasn’t even paid for. And it looked to be quite a while before the son-in-law became famous. The cousin said to Sam, “So for the last time, say already.” Sam answered once more, “I’m thinking it over,” and the business was sold to the man from St. Louis. The son-in-law made a nice dollar from it and continued to paint in the spare room, although the last I heard he had not yet become famous. There is a little story l would like to tell on the way. Some men were arguing how many teeth a horse had. The argument got very strong and vehement, although it didn’t come to violence. It is a pretty safe assumption that men who argue about how many teeth a horse has will not resort to violence. Anyway, the argument went on and on, it was becoming dark, the wives were sending their youngest to announce that supper was on the table, and still they argued. Finally one man went and found a horse, counted its teeth, and came back and announced the correct figure. The others ignored him and went on arguing while their suppers got cold.

The story is supposedly told about Greek philosophers. l think they were Jewish, but l’m quite sure that the man who went to count the horse’s teeth wasn’t.

Anyway, back to Sam. As you might assume, things had come to a crisis. So his family and friends, once again and, as it turned out, for the last time, came to his rescue. My older brother, Harry, was one of those friends. Sam‘s father had been a neighbor of ours and Harry had been a childhood playmate of Sam’s, so it was a smooth transition from generation to generation.

They all put up some money, whatever they thought they could afford, bought some secondhand peanut vending machines and a supply of peanuts, and put Sam up into business for himself. If you have any kind of a business background, you realize that having the equipment and inventory is only the beginning. You must build a route. You must get those machines where there is foot traffic so children will tug at their mothers’ skirts and ask for a penny to buy peanuts. Sam wasn‘t too good at this. (If he had been, would he have needed friends to put him in business?) He would get his machines into places like a one-man sheet-metal shop in an alley, or a small phone answering service on the fourth floor of an old building. Places like that where there is very little drop-in trade.

When people would come back to visit the old neighborhood and ask, “So? How is it with Helfgot’?"the answer was always, “He mitched zech.” Which is difficult to translate, but roughly means how you feel if you can only afford one cheap shirt that itches you in the middle of your back where you can‘t reach.

By this time, our own family business had grown to four paint and wallpaper stores, and, guess what, one day Sam Helfgot came in with a business proposition. By this time also, Harry had left the business to move to California. I had left the business to try to become a writer. My youngest brother, Dave, was tapering out of the business to become a farmer in Wisconsin. So the family responsibility for Sam, without saying, was transferred to my remaining brother, Joe. Sam’s proposition was that he would put a peanut machine in each of the stores, and split the gross income. You could clear, he promised, if you put the machines near the cash register where customers would bump into them, from five to ten dollars a month per store, easy. The last thing Joe wanted in his nice modern stores, with stainlesssteel fixtures and possibly air conditioning in the planned future, was to have stupid peanut machines near the cash registers where the customers could fall over them. But what could he do?

“OK, OK,“ he interrupted Sam, who was going on about the fiscal advantages. “You can put the machines in and you can keep all the money. Don’t have to split with me. Just do me a favor. Try to keep them where they don’t interfere with the customer while he’s trying to buy something.

Sam went home, picked up the children from school, and when his wife came home from work he announced proudly, “Put over a pretty good deal today.”

Sam put a peanut machine in each of the four stores. They were not, strictly speaking, peanut machines. They were three glass bowls on a stand, one for penny peanuts, one for penny gumballs, and one for nickel cashews. He put them right next to the cash registers where people need something to look at while they wait for their change. Just as the large stores do today with magazines, razor blades, and batteries. For all I know, they may have stolen the idea from Sam.

But that was not the end. Vending machines need servicing. And Sam only bought secondhand machines in the first place, so they were always breaking down. Machines would become empty or out of order, and little boys would be tugging at the store manager’s pants. “Hey, mister, I put a penny in the machine and nothing came out.” The manager would take a penny from the register, mark a paid out, put a paper bag over the machine, and call up Sam.

“l will be there at my earliest possible convenience,” Sam would say. Somebody else would put a coin in. (Why do people put coins in empty machines? Why do they touch walls marked war PAINT, push doors labeled PULL, put dimes in phones marked our OF ORDER? Don’t ask me.) And so the manager would go to the cash register and write another paid out, and Sam kept on not coming. And when was this most likely to happen? Exactly. During a sale when the store was busy.

The managers would get angry and ask to throw the machines out.

“The machines must stay,” Joe said. “Why?” asked the store managers. “The world is divided into shlemiels and shlimazls,” Joe answered. “The shlemiel is always dropping things, and the shlimazl picks them up and hands them back to him. Sam is a shlemiel and I’m a shlimazl, and I can’t break up the set.”

The stores prospered and so did Sam. You see, Alan, Joe’s oldest son, was beginning to get active in the business and although everyone in the family always made as much money as he needed, Alan was the first one to take the trouble to make more. The stores grew both in size and in number. They added new departments that sold things like eye shadow and plaster figures of little dogs and barbecue aprons with funny sayings on them. They would continually seek new locations in shopping centers that had department-store branches, tea rooms, luggage shops, and plenty of parking.

Every time they opened a new store, they would have a Grand Opening with door prizes and flowers from the suppliers. An alderman or somebody else important would cut a ribbon, balloons would come down from the ceiling, camera bulbs would flash, people would crowd in with coupons to buy the loss leaders, and always there was Sam waiting until the ribbon was cut so he could install his machine. Sometimes, in the picture that appeared in the local newspapers, you would see Sam in the corner holding his machine and waiting for the alderman to get out of the way so he could find a good spot next to the cash registers.
The business kept growing. Store managers wore jackets and neckties, and the switchboard operator said “good morning” instead of “hello,” just to give you an idea. They sold pantyhose, and a man in a white smock would go around with a broom and pan on long sticks to pick up paper scraps. Alan’s grandfather, who would sweep up his store every morning and have to go in back to fill a pop bottle for ten cents’ worth of turpentine from a big drum, wouldn’t have believed his eyes. Now they had men called comptrollers just to look after the money, and industrial designers to decide which was the best light to spend money by, and shiny big cash registers that not only told you how much money to get but also how much change to give.

And in every store, in the best spot where people would fall over it, was—you guessed it—one of Sam Helfgot’s battered old machines, like as not with a brown paper bag over it.

He had to take his machines out of the sheet-metal shop in the alley and the answering service on the fourth floor to keep up with his growing route. He even had to buy new machines—new old ones, that is. Where he would find the old relics he would put in the nice new stores, God only knows. And of course they would break down, store managers would call, and Sam would promise to be there at his earliest convenience.

Don’t let me give you the idea that Sam got rich, but he made a nice living, unless you compare it to a doctor or the owner of a beer franchise. His wife only had to work part-time. They moved to Skokie next door to a dentist, joined the Book-of-the-Month Club, and were able to go to Becker’s resort on Brown’s Lake for two weeks every year.

The years passed. The family business grew to a chain of 31 stores, not only in Chicago but spilling over into nearby towns, and even one in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sam Helfgot had raised three children and put two of them through college from the peanut machines. The oldest, would you believe it, got a Ph.D. in comparative religions and was on a fellowship in India with his wife and two children. The second son was working for his teacher’s credentials and also wrote poetry, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds because he was still single. The youngest didn’t have to go to college because she was a girl, who anyway married a cantor who sold religious books on the side.

Alan’s father had died, olav ha-shalom, while on a luxury cruise in the South Seas, and Alan was now sole owner and chairman of the board. He was a macher, which meant that he was the main speaker at business luncheons, was the first one approached on charity drives, and supported liberal politicians.

When Alan walked into his office, reps waiting to see a buyer would try to catch his eye so they could say good morning, and inside, his secretary would hand him a list of calls, most of which he would disregard. On one particular morning, there was a request for an appointment from Sam Helfgot, which of course he couldn’t disregard. If you have been keeping track, you have noted that in my family Sam had been transferred four times through three generations.

When Alan and Sam got together, they chatted about business. “The Central Avenue store is doing well, but I expect the new Dempster location to be a real winner,” said Sam, who could judge the relative business each store was doing by the coins he collected from his machines. Alan was already an hour behind on his appointments, but he couldn’t tell Sam that. Then Sam said, “l suppose you’ve been wondering why I asked for this meeting.” “Well, as a matter of fact, I have,” Alan said.

“I wish to announce that I am going to retire,” Sam said. Alan came around the desk to shake his hand in congratulations. “Twenty-seven years I’ve worked,” Sam said. “Built up a nice little business, if I do say so myself. My children are grown, my house is paid for, I start collecting social security next month, and I have, thanks God, a few dollars put aside to help out in case of inflation. My wife says it‘s time I took it easy.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Alan said. “It’s a real American success story.”

“One more thing I have to announce,” Sam said.

“Yes?”

“I am in the midst of negotiations to sell the route.”

“Route!” Alan, who was just sitting down again, jumped up. “What route?”

“Thirty-one Saxon Paint and Wallpaper stores,” Sam said. “I built them up over the last 27 years. Would you believe I started with a route of only four stores?”

“l believe it.”

“The Central Avenue store alone is doing . . .”

“I know how the Central Avenue store is doing.”

“And when I happened to pass a remark to a fellow colleague that I was retiring, and mentioned that I kept the gross amount of income from the machines instead of. . .”

“How much are you asking for the route?” Alan interrupted.

“Five thousand dollars.” “I’ll buy it,” Alan said.

“I can see why you‘re a successful businessman,” Sam said. “You can clear alone from the Central Avenue store . .

“Part of the deal,” Alan said, “is that you take every one of the machines out of every one of the stores.”

“Agreed. And where did you want to put them?”

“In your basement. I would like never to have to see them again.“

That isn’t quite the end of the story. Alan did not get his wish. Sam tried to sell his old machines to other men in the vending machine business, but they laughed in his face. “Those broken-down antiques?“ one of them said, which gave Sam an idea. He went to Old Town, which on a Sunday was crowded with tourists looking to spend money, and sold the machines to antique stores.

One day Alan came home to his seven-bedroom, five-bathroom house in Evanston. (Why there needs to be more bathrooms than there are people in the house, I don’t understand. If every person in the house had to go at the very same time. . . I just don’t understand it.) There in Alan’s walnut-paneled den with the real leather chairs was standing one of Sam Helfgot’s peanut machines, all polished and newly painted.

“Where did that come from?” Alan asked his wife, understandably.

“l picked it up in that funky little shop on Wells Street,” she said. “You know, the place where we found that old Coca-Cola tray. He asked a hundred eighty-nine ninety for it, but I got him down to a hundred and sixty and . . .”

“Is dinner ready?” Alan asked. “I’m hungry.” On the way to the dining room with the solid rosewood table and the 200-year-old chiffonier, Alan’s youngest daughter tugged at his pants leg. “Daddy,” she said, “I put a penny in the machine and nothing came out.”

“Can‘t a man,” complained Alan, “have a little peace in his own house?”

Still not the end of the story. Sam Helfgot and his wife sold their house, moved to California, and bought a condominium in the San Fernando Valley. They would come back to Chicago for a visit periodically and talk to old friends and relatives, mostly about how it never rained in California from May to November, and real oranges grew in their backyard.

The first time they came back, for the Bar Mitzvah of their daughter’s oldest son, Sam dropped in for a visit at the Saxon Paint and Wallpaper store on Central Avenue.

“How’s business?” Sam asked. “lt’s been falling off,” the manager replied.

“I was afraid that would happen,“ Sam Helfgot said. “But a man‘s got to retire sometime.”

That’s the end of the story.

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