They called him “butcher.”
My uncle Harry was a street peddler. Well, maybe that is too quaint a name for what he did. He was always hustling. Look like rain? He was on a busy street in Manhattan with umbrellas. Temperature dropping? There he was with gloves. One year he sold fireworks right outside Grand Central Station. He must have been doing very well because he was paying the cops a thousand dollars a day to look the other way.
The night my fiancée was over to meet the family we were waiting dinner for Uncle Harry. It was getting late and we were starting to worry when the phone rang. It was Uncle Harry; thank God, he was in jail. He had been pulled off the street because the cop needed a collar. These things happened from time to time. As he left the courtroom he handed the arresting officer a few bucks. After all, the cop had to put in some unpaid overtime in court. Cost of doing business.
He was called butcher because as a young man he had inherited his father’s wholesale meat business. It was during the depression and he made a very good living. But Harry loved to gamble. He couldn’t watch a game or a prizefight unless he had some action going on it. He always knew who was going to win the Friday night fights because he saw how the odds on the street shifted late in the day.
In the good days, he and some friends kept a fancy apartment on Riverside Drive just for gambling and my aunt used to tell me of the big name bandleader who would come by and sit at the piano from time to time. One night some masked men rushed into the apartment, guns drawn. They held the gamblers at gunpoint and took all their money. Uncle Harry later said he recognized one of the robbers behind the mask. He never said a word. That would have been very dangerous.
But the gambling became more important than the meat business and down the tube went his career as the butcher, leaving only the nickname and some good stories. Like the time he came home bloody. It seems he had gotten into a fight with someone on the street.
“I told him he belonged in a nuthouse,” said Uncle Harry. “And he just got out of the nuthouse.”
Fast forward to later in Uncle Harry’s life, he and my parents would go to Yonkers Raceway for an evening of horse racing (the trotters). One Saturday he came over all excited. The first race was fixed. Silver Jerry was going to win and he could make a killing by “wheeling it,” betting a combination of Silver Jerry with every horse in the second race for a certain “Daily Double.” But things don’t always go as planned. The problem was my father. As an observant Jew, he would not leave for the track before the end of the Shabbat. They waited, they paced, they cajoled, they waited some more and finally it was OK to go. They thought they just might make it in time. But as they entered the track they asked the first person they saw who won the first race.
“Silver Jerry,” he said.
“Drop Dead,” the butcher replied.
Colorful characters: my family was full of them. And I adored them.
“A heart of gold,” my mother used to say about Uncle Harry. “Maybe a little rough around the edges, but a heart of gold.”