My father was 22 when I was born. Soon after he opened The Leather Shoe Shop, a shoe and leather repair store in a plaza in upstate New York. My older brother Tony and I went to work with my father Monday through Saturday nine to nine. My mother had left us, and my father sought full custody. (Tony Danza has nothing on this guy.)
My father had shoulder-length black hair, and wore denim shirts, leather vests, flared pants, and leather zip-up boots. He smiled and laughed a lot, and was well-liked by his customers for his honesty and kindness. The Leather Shoe Shop stood among businesses, owned by 1st and 2nd generation immigrants like my father, places like Mario’s Pizza, Kaplan’s kosher deli, Haim’s barber shop, and the Gondola Restaurant, where food and services were traded for shoe repair, and deals were sealed with a handshake.
A set of wind chimes hung on the door to the shop, so my father always knew when a customer entered. He told me that was so he could worry less about shoplifters. When he sat in the workshop to take a bite of pizza, or toast dipped in coffee, or went to use the bathroom, the chimes went “brrrrring,” and he’d go running into the storefront. I tried to wait on customers for him, but I was a tomboy with ratty brown hair, and no adults took me seriously.
Mostly my brother and I hung out in the back, stamping wet hides with brass tools to make key chains and name plates. At the end of the night, my father took us to Sharkey’s Tavern where we ate fried clams or turkey on a stick, and drank Cokes to our hearts’ delight. Then, in our dingy apartment, my brother and I crawled into the bed we shared without bathing or brushing our teeth. In the morning, our father woke us up to do it all over again.
In those early days of the business, we were broke. We had a gas stove, and one month when my father couldn’t pay the bill, the company shut off the gas. My father called and told them he had two small kids at home, but they refused to turn it back on. So, he took a hibachi into our front yard, threw in some charcoal briquettes and started a small fire. Right there in the yard he put up a large sign that read, “Gas Strike.” My father cooked bacon and eggs on the hibachi. After a while, a rep from the gas company showed up in a work truck. “Take the sign down,” he said. My father told him to turn on the gas. The rep said, “No.” My father smiled and kept cooking. “Come on, buddy,” the rep said. “You can’t have that sign in the yard.” My father ignored him. By the end of the day, the gas company relented.
What I learned from my father was this: Family comes first. You work to support your family. Handshakes are as binding as legal documents. The written word can make change. Never be afraid to question authority.